Scientists Take First Photos of Planets Orbiting Other Stars

Two groups of astronomers reported this week that, for the first time, they had directly laid eyes on planets outside our solar system. The two groups reported a total of four new "exoplanets:" three are orbiting a star 128 light years away, and another orbits a star 25 light years away. Given that 1 light year is approximately 5.9 trillion miles, these planets won't be visited any time soon.

Planets orbiting distant stars are difficult to see because the parent star's bright light overwhelms any reflected light that the planet may direct towards earth.  Although more than 300 exoplanets have been identified, their existence to date has been inferred by indirect means - for example, by observing a planet's effect on other celestial objects (stars, dust rings), or their ability to block light as they pass in front of a star.

Being able to directly image other planets will allow astronomers to determine their chemical composition and perhaps infer whether they could support life. For the current discovery, none of the four are believed to have life-friendly conditions.

A photo of the three-planet system can be found at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory website.