AUSTIN (KXAN) – Researchers have revealed they have discovered the first exoplanet using the James Webb Space Telescope. The planet, named LHS 475 b, is about the size of Earth.

“There is no question that the planet is there. Webb’s pristine data validate it,” research Jacob Lustig-Yaeger said in a statement.

The planet is close to Earth. It is only 41 light-years away in the constellation Octans. The discovery was made on August 13, 2022 and presented on January 11, 2023.

An exoplanet is any planet that orbits a star outside our solar system. Most exoplanets that have been discovered are in our Milky Way galaxy. Only 193 of the thousands discovered are similar to Earth.

According to a release from NASA, the planet is a small, rocky world. It was found after NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite discovered signs of a planet in that sector of space.

Researcher Lustig-Yaeger and Kevin Stevenson, both with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, chose to observe that sector of space with the Webb Telescope, which observes the universe in infrared light.

Only a handful of exoplanets have been discovered using a traditional telescope. This is because in the deep space, we can only spot things that emit or reflect light. Stars frequently blot out other objects because of their intense visible light.

How do researchers spot a distant planet? By observing the changes in light as it orbits its star. A light curve from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) shows the change in brightness from the LHS 475 star system over time as the planet transited the star on August 31, 2022. (NASA Graphic)

NASA said that Webb’s Near Infrared Spectrograph, which can spot things at a greater distance, was able to spot this exoplanet with ease.

How similar to Earth is the new planet?

This exoplanet may have an atmosphere similar to Earth. It orbits closer to its star than we do, but it orbits a red dwarf star. Red dwarfs are smaller than our sun and not as hot. They’re the same stars that rob Superman of his powers.

Because of this, despite its proximity to the star, the atmosphere could still be there.

One of the advantages of the Webb telescope is its ability to detect signs of an atmosphere. The exoplanet does not have a thick methane atmosphere like Saturn’s moon Titan.

Researchers used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) to observe exoplanet LHS 475 b on August 31, 2022. As this spectrum shows, Webb did not observe a detectable quantity of any element or molecule. The data (white dots) are consistent with a featureless spectrum representative of a planet that has no atmosphere (yellow line). The purple line represents a pure carbon dioxide atmosphere and is indistinguishable from a flat line at the current level of precision. (NASA Photo)

It could have a 100% carbon dioxide atmosphere, which is difficult to detect. More precise measurements are needed before they can rule that out.

The exoplanet is warmer than Earth. If it does have an atmosphere, it may be more similar to Venus, the researcher said.

How many other planets have we discovered?

According to NASA, the first exoplanets were spotted in the 1990s. Since then, thousands have been identified. Most of them have been discovered indirectly.

Observing an exoplanet can be done by witnessing a star dim as the planet passes in front of it, known as the transit method. Infrared light can also be used to detect an exoplanet.

According to NASA’s exoplanet division, the majority of planets are smaller. There are believed to more planets than stars in our galaxy, with the number possibly in the trillions.

The majority of exoplanets discovered are similar to Neptune, smaller gas giants, while gas giants the size of Jupiter and Saturn are the second most numerous.