TThere is nothing terribly special about the exoplanet known as hip 65426b. It is a gas giant nine times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting its host star 385 light-years from Earth. just one of the few Astronomers have detected 5,000 exoplanetscould easily go unnoticed. But how NASA announced yesterdayHIP 65426 b is both big news: becoming the first exoplanet directly imaged by the new James Webb Space Telescope.
Exoplanets are usually detected only by inference, either by the slight dimming of light that occurs when they orbit in front of their parent star, or by the slight wobble they cause in the star as its gravity tugs on it. In reality, seeing an exoplanet is a much more difficult thing to deal with, as the star’s glare makes their orbits out of the comparatively small world. As astronomers often describe things, it’s a bit like trying to spot a moth fluttering near a streetlight from several blocks away.
Webb achieved his feat of exoplanet photography thanks to a coronagraph built into his various imaging instruments, which blocks out starlight and reveals whatever is orbiting the star. The images Webb captured of HIP 65426 b aren’t much photographically speaking, small and fuzzy and taken at four different wavelengths by two different instruments: the Multi-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The exploit was as much a test drive for that hardware as anything else.
But the images 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 Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the UK, who led the observations, said in a statement from the University of Exeter. POT. Now that astronomers conclude that virtually every star in the universe is surrounded by at least one exoplanet, and many, like our sun, by an entire brood of them, there will be no shortage of targets for Webb to capture in the future.
More must-read stories from TIME