There is yet more exciting news from the astronomy community this morning with the announcement that the James Webb Space Telescope, which is already been making headlines all through the summer with its amazing discoveries, has completed the first direct imaging of a planet in another solar system. (Details and images can be viewed on the NASA website)

The target planet is a gas giant, believed to be about ten times more massive than Jupiter, and orbiting the otherwise uninteresting star, HIP 65426.

As many of you know, the first exoplanets (the proper name for planets that orbit other stars) were first discovered in the early nineties, and in the following three decades thousands more have been found and cataloged. However all of these discoveries were made using indirect detection methods - primarily by measuring the changes in the brightness of stars over time. As the planets cross in front of their parent star, the star appears to dim. By measuring the periods of the dimming and other properties of the star, astrophysicists could infer the mass and orbital properties of each planet. 

This new discovery is quite different, because the JWST was able to produce four images in different wavelengths of the planet itself. 

There are several reasons why this was possible for this particular planet. Being a very large planet was one of the key factors, but it also helped that the planet is quite far from its host star. Some estimates claim that this gas giant has an orbital radius more than a hundred times greater than that of the Earth. As a result, astronomers were able to effectively block out the very bright star in their images, which in other stellar systems would have caused the planet to disappear in the stellar glare. (For reference, it is estimated that for every photon of light that the JWST received from this planet, it would have filtered out ten thousand photons from the parent star)

Unfortunately for those seeking alien life, this planet is very unlikely to provide anything interesting. It is believed to be composed entirely of gas, with no underlying surface, and is also likely to be quite dark and cold. While habitable planets are known to exist in the galaxy, this is not one of them. 

However this is still an amazing achievement, and will likely lead to more discoveries and images of exoplanets in the coming years. We are truly starting our journey into the stars - even if it is just the first few baby steps :)

UPDATE: After posting this article, it came to my attention that the Hubble Telescope also performed some direct imaging of exoplanets, although not to the same level of details as the JWST has achieved. Both are still impressive achievements in their own right.