Exoplanets have been impossible to photograph directly - until now

Tthere’s nothing terribly special about the exoplanet known as HIP 65426 b. It is a gas giant nine times the mass of Jupiter orbiting its host star 385 light-years from Earth. Just one of at least Astronomers have discovered 5,000 exoplanets, can easily be overlooked. But like NASA announced yesterdayHIP 65426 b is also very big news — it becomes the first exoplanet imaged directly by the new James Webb Space Telescope.

Exoplanets are usually only detected by guesswork – 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 at it. Actually seeing an exoplanet is much more difficult to manage, as the blazing light of the star it orbits washes out the relatively small world. As astronomers often describe things, it’s a bit like trying to spot a moth fluttering near a street light from several blocks away.

Webb achieved his feat in exoplanet photography thanks to a coronagraph built into his various imaging instruments, which blocks out starlight, revealing everything orbiting the star. The images captured by Webb of HIP 65426 b are not very photographically speaking, small and fuzzy, and were taken at four different wavelengths by two different instruments, the Multi-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The feat was as much a test drive for that hardware as anything else.

But the pictures are historic nonetheless, finally ushering in a new era of studying exoplanets by looking at them directly. “This is a transformative moment not just for Webb, but for astronomy in general,” Sasha Hinckley, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom who led the observations, said in a NASA statement. With astronomers now concluding that nearly every star in the universe is surrounded by at least one exoplanet—and many, like our sun, by a whole group of them—there will be no shortage of targets for Webb to capture in the future.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger c [email protected].

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