The first exoplanet photo revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope

Jthe exoplanet known as HIP 65426 b isn’t really anything special. It is a gas giant nine times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting its host star 385 light-years from Earth. Just one of the at least 5,000 exoplanets that astronomers have detected could easily go unnoticed. But, as NASA announced yesterday, HIP 65426 b is big news all at once, becoming the first exoplanet imaged directly by the new James Webb Space Telescope.

Exoplanets are usually only detected 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 pulls on it. In fact, seeing an exoplanet is a much harder thing to handle, as the blazing light from the star it orbits obliterates the relatively small world. As astronomers often describe it, it’s a bit like trying to spot a moth hovering near a street lamp blocks away.

Webb achieved his feat of photographing exoplanets with a coronagraph built into his various imaging instruments, which blocks starlight, revealing anything orbiting the star. The images captured by Webb of HIP 65426 b are not very photographic, small and blurry and taken in 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 this hardware as anything else.

But the images are historic all the same, 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,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the UK, who has directed the observations, in a NASA statement. With astronomers now concluding that virtually every star in the universe is ringed 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 at coming.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected]

Jack C. Nugent