Launched last Christmas, the James Webb Space Telescope is facing new firsts. This time it was his first direct image of a planet outside the Solar System, and the chosen one was HIP 65426 b, a gas giant and, therefore, not habitable.
This exoplanet was discovered in 2017, it has between six and twelve times the mass of Jupiter and, if compared to the age of the Earth, 4.5 billion years, it can be said that it is young, between 15 and 20 million years.
Although it had already been observed by the Very Large Telescope of the Central European Observatory (ESO) in Chile, the images provided by four of the James Webb’s instruments reveal new details that could not be captured by telescopes on the ground.
This is “a transformative moment, not just for Webb but for astronomy in general,” in the words of Sasha Hinkley of the University of Exeter, UK, who led the observations.
The exoplanet is about a hundred times further from its host star than Earth is from the Sun, which allows both bodies to be clearly separated by the new telescope, born from the collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
In each image, the exoplanet appears as a patch of light with a slightly different shape, due to the peculiarities of the telescope’s optical system and how it translates light through the different optical sensors, ESA explained in a statement.
“Getting this image was like searching for space treasure,” explained Aarynn Carter of the University of California, USA, who led the image analysis.
The scientist, quoted by NASA, said that, at first, all she could see was the light of the star, “but with careful image processing, I was able to eliminate it and discover the planet.” She also considered that there are “many more images” to come that “will shape our understanding” of the physics, chemistry and formation of exoplanets.