There’s nothing terribly special about the exoplanet known as HIP 65426 b. It’s a gas giant nine times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting its host star 385 light years from Earth—about 100 times farther than the Earth. Although it is just one of the astronomers estimated to have discovered at least 5,000 other exoplanets, this could easily be overlooked. But, as NASA announced yesterday, HIP 65426 b is all at once very big news—becoming the first exoplanet imaged directly by the new James Webb Space Telescope.
Exoplanets are typically detected only inferentially—either by the slight dimming of light that occurs as they orbit in front of their parent star, or by the slight wobble they cause in the star as their gravity tugs on it. The comparatively small world of an exoplanet can be difficult to see because it is so bright. As astronomers often describe things, it’s a bit like trying to spot a moth fluttering near a street light from blocks away.
Webb was able to capture exoplanet photographs thanks to an integrated coronagraph into each of its imaging instruments. The coronagraph blocks the starlight so that any object orbiting the star is visible. The images Webb captured of HIP 65426 b are not much photographically speaking, small and fuzzy and taken in four different wavelengths by two different instruments—the multi-infrared instrument (MIRI) and the near-infrared camera (NIRCam). This feat was a testing drive of the hardware.
The pictures, however, are still historic and will usher in an era where exoplanets can be studied directly. “This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the U.K., who led the observations, in a NASA statement. With astronomers now concluding that virtually every star in the universe is circled by at least one exoplanet—and many, like our sun, by a whole litter of them—there will be no shortage of targets for Webb to capture in the future.
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