Astronomers have used the James Webb space telescope for the first time to take a picture of a planet outside our solar system. “Getting this image felt like digging for a space treasure,” said one of the researchers.
Known as HIP 65426 b, the exoplanet was discovered in 2017 with the Very Large Telescope in Chile, one of the most advanced telescopes on Earth. The celestial body has a mass of six to twelve times that of Jupiter, which makes it impossible for life to exist, and moves about 385 light-years from Earth, almost in our cosmic backyard.
Images of the planet have also been taken with the Very Large Telescope. But those are different from the James Webb recordings. The images were then created using short infrared wavelengths of light.
However, the photos taken by James Webb were taken at longer infrared wavelengths, revealing new details that cannot be seen by telescopes on Earth. After all, the infrared glow of our own atmosphere would throw a spanner in the works.
The astronomers who took the new photo are still analyzing the data and preparing an academic paper. But although there is no scientific publication yet, they already speak of a “transformative moment, not just for Webb, but for astronomy in general”. Those are the words of Sasha Hinkley, a UK physicist who is leading the study.
The scientists chose this planet because it is about 100 times farther from its star than Earth is from the sun. This makes it easier to separate the light emitted by the star from the light emitted by the planet.
The James Webb is very capable of separating that light, because the telescope is equipped with so-called coronagraphs, instruments that can block starlight. This should make it easier to take such pictures.
“It was really impressive how well Webb’s coronagraph worked to suppress the guest star’s light,” Hinkley said. Scitechdaily. “Getting this image felt like digging up a space treasure,” added Aarynn Carter, a California researcher who led the analysis of the images.
Photos of exoplanets are extremely difficult to take, although this James Webb firstborn isn’t the very first ever. After all, the star in a solar system is thousands of times brighter than a planet. For example, HIP 65426 b is 10,000 times less bright than the star in the near infrared spectrum, and several thousand times in the infrared spectrum.