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The Sciences

Our First Glimpse of an Alien World

Astronomers capture the first visible-light image of a planet orbiting another star.

By Francesca LymanJanuary 17, 2009 6:00 AM
firstlight.jpg
Image courtesy of NASA | NULL

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Achieving a feat that seemed impossible not so long ago, a team of scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope captured the first visible-light image of a planet orbiting another star (above and inset). On the same day as this announcement, last November 14, came the report of a related breakthrough using the ground-based Gemini and Keck observatories in Hawaii, with which astronomers captured the first infrared image of three planets orbiting a star. A week later, another exoplanet candidate was spotted in infrared—this time by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope—orbiting the hot, bright star Beta Pictoris.

Astronomers’ newfound success at imaging planets trillions of miles away comes with the use of more powerful telescopes, improved optics techniques, and software that compares images to minimize background starlight. Bruce Macintosh, an astronomer with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that changes in the kinds of stars astronomers are seeking out—stars 50 to 100 percent more massive than our sun—may also factor into the number of exoplanet sightings. Spotting an Earth-like planet around a sunlike star remains beyond current technology, but it suddenly seems much closer.

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