Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.
Astronomers have captured the first direct image of an exoplanet with the James Webb Space Telescope.
The exoplanet, or planet outside our solar system, is a gas giant about six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter. The planet, called HIP 65426 b, is around 15 to 20 million years old – just a small planet compared to Earth, which is 4.5 billion years old.
It is located about 385 light years from Earth.
The planet can be seen in four different bands of infrared light taken by Webb’s various instruments. Webb sees the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye – and makes it the perfect space observatory to reveal details about distant worlds.
“This is a transformative moment, not just for Webb but also for astronomy in general,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the UK, in a communicated.
Hinkley led the observations in an international collaboration.
The exoplanet was first discovered in 2017 using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and its SPHERE instrument, located in Chile. The instrument then took images of the planet through short infrared wavelengths, but Webb’s ability to see longer infrared wavelengths may illuminate new details.
Scientists are analyzing Webb’s data on HIP 65426 b and an upcoming study will be submitted to journals for peer review.
The exoplanet is about 100 times farther from its host star than Earth is from the sun, which allowed Webb and his instruments to separate the planet from its star. Some of Webb’s instruments are armed with coronagraphs or masks that can block out starlight, allowing the telescope to capture direct images of exoplanets.
Stars are much brighter than planets and in this case, HIP 65426 b is more than 10,000 times fainter than its near-infrared host star.
“Getting this image was like digging for space treasure,” Aarynn Carter, image analysis lead and postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement. “At first all I could see was starlight, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and discover the planet.”
While the Hubble Space Telescope was the first to capture direct images of exoplanets, Webb’s infrared exploration of exoplanets is just beginning. The telescope has already shared the first spectrum of an exoplanet by detecting a signature of water in its atmosphere and found the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere.
And the space observatory only started making scientific observations this summer.
“I think what’s most exciting is that we’ve only just started,” Carter said. “There are many more images of exoplanets to come that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry and formation. We may even discover previously unknown planets.