Although we can detect the planets orbiting distant stars through indirect methods, an optical image would provide much more information about how planets form and evolve. But those stars are so much brighter than the planets around them that the starlight simply drowns out the smaller orbs, like a flashlight beam in bright daylight. But now, researchers have developed an imaging system called Project 1640—a collaboration between the American Museum of Natural History, the California Institute of Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—that can create a dark space around a planet to snap its photo.
Update, July 16: The Project 1640 researchers provided some more images showing how the system works, so we assembled them into the gallery below.
Images courtesy of Project 1640
Imagine an infantile version of our 4.6 billion-year-old sun. Now picture a “failed star,” a brown dwarf, about the size of Jupiter, tightly orbiting that 12 million year old stellar baby–at the distance Uranus orbits our sun. Astronomers have just found such a duo: a star about the mass of our sun with an unusually close brown dwarf companion.
Of the similarly situated brown dwarfs that astronomers have imaged, most keep their distance, orbiting at about 50 AU (or 50 times the average distance from the Earth to the sun). A team of astronomers believe the distance between this young sun, called PZ Tel A, and its dwarf companion, PZ Tel B, is less than half that, a mere 18 AU.