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NASA Webb takes first-ever direct picture of a distant world – Scientific Inquirer



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For the first time, astronomers have used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to take a direct picture of a planet outside our solar system. The an exoplanet is a gas giant, which means it has no rocky surface and cannot be habitable.

Viewed through four different light filters, the image shows how Webb’s powerful infrared gaze can easily capture worlds beyond our solar system, pointing the way to future observations that will reveal more information about exoplanets than ever before.

“This is a transformative moment not only for Webb, but for astronomy in general,” said Sasha Hinckley, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Exeter in the UK, who led the observations in a large international collaboration. Webb is an international mission led by NASA in collaboration with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

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The exoplanet in Webb’s image, called HIP 65426 b, is about 6 to 12 times the mass of Jupiter, and these observations may help narrow that down further. It is as young as the planets — about 15-20 million years, compared to our Earth’s 4.5 billion years.

Astronomers discovered the planet in 2017 using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and took pictures of it using short-wave infrared light. Webb’s view at longer infrared wavelengths reveals new details that ground-based telescopes would not be able to detect due to the Earth’s atmosphere’s own infrared glow.

The researchers analyzed the data from these observations and are preparing an article that they will submit to peer-reviewed journals. But Webb’s first capture of an exoplanet already hints at future possibilities for exploring distant worlds.

Since HIP 65426 b is about 100 times farther from its star than Earth is from the Sun, it is far enough from the star that Webb can easily separate the planet from the star in the image.

Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) are equipped with coronagraphs, which are sets of tiny masks that block starlight, allowing Webb to take direct pictures of some exoplanets like this one. NASA’s Rome-based Nancy Grace Space Telescope, scheduled to launch later this decade, will demonstrate an even more advanced coronagraph.

“It’s really impressive how well the Webb coronagraphs worked to suppress the light of the host star,” Hinckley said.

Taking direct images of exoplanets is difficult because stars are much brighter than planets. The planet HIP 65426 b is more than 10,000 times fainter than its star in the near-infrared and several thousand times fainter in the mid-infrared.

In each filter image, the planet appears as a slightly different shaped spot of light. This is due to the special features of the Webb’s optical system and the way it transmits light through different optics.

“Getting this image was like digging for space treasure,” said Orynn Carter, a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the analysis of the images. “At first all I could see was the light from the star, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and reveal the planet.”

While this is not the first direct image of an exoplanet taken from space—the Hubble Space Telescope has taken direct images of exoplanets before—HIP 65426 b points the way for Webb’s continued exoplanet research.

“I think the most exciting thing is that we’ve only just started,” Carter said. “There will be many more images of exoplanets that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry and formation. We can even discover previously unknown planets.”

– Elizabeth Landau, NASA Headquarters

IMAGE: NASA/ESA/CSA, A. Carter (UCSC), ERS 1386 team, and A. Pagan (STScI).

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