Direct imaging of exoplanets remains in its infancy, but goodness what a treat it is already and what a promise of things to come.
Almost all of the 3,714 exoplanets confirmed so far were detected via the powerful but indirect transit and radial velocity methods — measures of slightly decreased light as a planet crosses in front of its star, or the measured wobble of a star caused by the gravitational pull of a planet.
But now 44 planets have also been detected by telescopes — in space and on the ground — looking directly at distant stars. Using increasingly sophisticated coronagraphs to block out the blinding light of the stars, these tiny and often difficult-to-identify specks are nonetheless results that are precious to scientists and the public.
To me, they make exoplanet science accessible as perhaps nothing else so far. Additionally, they strike me as moving — and I don’t mean in orbit. Rather, as when you see your own insides via x-rays or MRIs, direct imaging of exoplanets provides a glimpse into the otherwise hidden realities of our world.
And in the years ahead – actually, most likely the decades ahead — this kind of direct imaging of our astronomical neighborhood will become increasingly powerful and common.
This is how the astronomers studying the Fomalhaut system describe what you are seeing:
“The Fomalhaut system harbors a large ring of rocky debris that is analogous to our Kuiper belt. Inside this ring, the planet Fomalhaut b is on a trajectory that will send it far beyond the ring in a highly elliptical orbit.
“The nature of the planet remains mysterious, with the leading theory being the planet is surrounded by its own ring or a sphere of dust.”