(CNN) – Astronomers have captured the first direct image of an exoplanet using the James Webb Space Telescope.
An exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system, is a gas giant with a mass six to twelve times that of Jupiter. The planet, named HIP 65426 b, is between 15 and 20 million years old, making it a small planet compared to Earth, which is 4.5 billion years old and about 385 light years from Earth.
The planet can be seen in four different bands of infrared light taken by the various Webb instruments. The Webb Telescope sees the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, making it an ideal space observatory for revealing details about distant worlds.
“This is a transformative moment, not just for Webb, but for astronomy in general,” Sasha Hinckley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter, UK, said in a statement.
Hinckley led the notes as part of an international collaboration.
An exoplanet was first discovered in 2017 using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and the SPHERE instrument located in Chile. The instrument then imaged the planet through its short infrared wavelengths, but Webb’s ability to see longer infrared wavelengths may shed light on new details.
Scientists are analyzing HIP 65426 b data obtained by Webb and an upcoming study will be submitted to journals for review.
An exoplanet lies 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 Webb’s instruments are equipped with vertebrae or masks that can block out starlight, allowing the telescope to take direct images of exoplanets.
Stars are brighter than planets, and in this case, HIP 65426 b is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in near-infrared light.
“Getting this image looked like a treasure hunt in space,” said Erin Carter, head of image analysis and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a statement. “Initially all I could see was the light coming from the star, but through careful image processing I was able to remove that light and discover the planet.”
While the Hubble Space Telescope was the first to directly image exoplanets, Webb’s exploration of exoplanets in the infrared is just beginning. The telescope has already participated in the first spectrum of an exoplanet by detecting a trace of water in its atmosphere and finding the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.
The space observatory began conducting scientific observations this summer.
“I think the most exciting thing is that we’re just getting started,” Carter said. “There are more images of upcoming exoplanets that will shape our general understanding of physics, chemistry and morphology. We may even discover hitherto unknown planets.”