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Awesome Exoplanet Imager Begins Hunt for Alien Worlds

This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the s

This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus.

A new instrument attached to one of the most powerful telescopes in the world has been switched on and acquired its ‘first light’ images of alien star systems and Saturn’s moon Titan.

The Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (or SPHIRES) instrument has been recently installed at the ESO’s Very Large Telescope’s already impressive suite of sophisticated instrumentation. The VLT is located in the ultra-dry high-altitude climes of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

In the observation above, an ‘Eye of Sauron‘-like dust ring surrounding the star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus, a testament to the sheer power of the multiple technique SPHIRES will use to acquire precision views of directly-imaged exoplanets.

The biggest problem with trying to directly image a world orbiting close to its parent star is that of glare; stars are many magnitudes brighter that the reflected light from its orbiting exoplanet, so how the heck are you supposed to gain enough contrast between the bright star and exoplanet to resolve the two? The SPHIRES instrument is using a combination of three sophisticated techniques to remove a star’s glare and zero-in on its exoplanetary targets.