The Webb Telescope successfully explores the depths of space. Scientists are waiting for breakthrough discoveries
Astronomers discovered this exoplanet already in 2017 using the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope, which is part of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. That’s when they took pictures of the planet at the interface of the visible and infrared parts of the spectrum. The Webb telescope has now looked at the exoplanet at longer wavelengths, revealing new details. Without the latest technology, these would probably remain hidden forever by terrestrial observatories, if only because of the infrared light of our atmosphere.
As the American CNN reports today, observing an exoplanet is currently very rare. For the most part, scientists therefore monitor these bodies by indirect methods, i.e. by observing regular intervals when the light of the host star is temporarily dimmed by the exoplanet’s orbit. To date, more than five thousand planets orbiting stars outside the Solar System have been officially observed. The vast majority of them just through indirect observation.
Image showing the exoplanet HIP 65426 bv different infrared wavelengths.Source: NASA/ESA/CSA, A Carter (UCSC), the ERS 1386 team, and A. Pagan (STScI)
A view like never before
Only twenty exoplanets have so far been imaged in high contrast. Exoplanets are very far from our instruments, very small and very faint, especially compared to the brightness emitted by their host star. It is precisely in the high sensitivity of the Webb telescope that scientists have now placed great hopes.
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And their efforts paid off. In the image that the American NASA presented to the world on Thursday, the exoplanet can be seen in four wavelengths of infrared radiation. The Webb telescope sees the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. This makes it the perfect space observatory to reveal details about distant worlds.
The four published images differ in appearance because the Webb Telescope’s individual instruments capture light in different ways. Purple is the image from the NIRCam camera at a wavelength of 3.0 micrometers. The bluish image was also taken by the NIRCam camera, but at a wavelength of 4.44 micrometers. The orange image is the result of the MIRI camera, which focused on a wavelength of 11.4 micrometers. The last, red image is again from MIRI and shows the view at a wavelength of 15.5 micrometers.
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Stars tend to be much brighter than the planets that orbit them. Even in this case, HIP 65426 b is more than 10 thousand times fainter than its host star, which is why it has been practically impossible to directly observe the explanet until now. However, the state-of-the-art instruments inside the Webb Telescope are able to effectively block the brightness of the parent star so that the exoplanet can be seen more clearly. This allowed the Webb Telescope to take unique direct images.
According to Aarynn Carter, head of image analysis and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the process of obtaining these photos was like a space treasure hunt. “At first I only saw light from the star, but with careful image processing I was able to remove this light and reveal the planet,” he described.
A small white star in each image thus marks the position of the parent star, whose light was blocked by the coronagraph, a telescope that is able to cover the star itself and show only its surroundings. The rest of the light was then removed by the post-processing of the images.
A turning point for astronomy
According to the scientists, this is a prime example of how the sharp infrared vision of the Webb telescope can capture even distant objects. “This is a watershed moment not only for Webb, but also for astronomy in general,” commented Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the UK University of Exeter Sasha Hinkley, who led the observation.
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Direct observation of exoplanets is a technically extremely difficult task, but it provides scientists with a great tool for studying alien worlds. While not the first direct view of an exoplanet from space in history (Hubble held that distinction), this new “Webb” view points the way for future observatories to reveal more surprising details about exoplanets, according to Hinkley.
One step closer to unknown planets
The latest findings are all the more promising considering the fact that the space observatory only began scientific observations this summer. “I think the most exciting thing is that we’re just getting started,” Carter said.
The telescope has shared a number of discoveries and observations during its lifetime, recently detecting water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, and also revealing the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of this space body.
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“Many additional images of exoplanets are constantly coming in, which will refine our understanding of their formation, as well as the physical and chemical processes that take place on them. We may even discover previously unknown planets,” Carter hinted.
NASA has decided to inform the public about the latest discovery, despite the fact that the images have not yet gone through a complete review process. The researchers are still analyzing the data from the observations and preparing the study, which will then be submitted to scientific journals for peer review.
The James Webb Space Telescope is an international project of the American agency NASA, the European agency ESA and the Canadian agency CSA. It is named after James E. Webb, who was a NASA administrator in the 1960s and played an important role in the Apollo program. The telescope was launched on December 25, 2021 by an Ariane 5 rocket on flight VA256. It is designed to provide better resolution and sensitivity in the infrared spectrum than Hubble, and to image objects up to 100 times fainter than the faintest objects detectable by Hubble.
The Webb TelescopeSource: NASA GSFC, CIL, Adriana Manrique Gutierrez