Sasha Hinkley is a 2009 Sagan Fellow working on the direct imaging of exoplanets. He sends us the following update on his research:
My research centers around obtaining direct images exoplanets in the vicinity of nearby stars, probing portions of exoplanetary solar systems out of reach to the radial velocity and transit methods. With many orders of magnitude in brightness between the planets and their host stars, coupled with very small separations on the sky, our challenge is primarily based on overcoming this contrast. Using careful starlight control on five to ten meter class telescopes with adaptive optics and a coronagraph to suppress the host star light, we are starting to obtain actual images of planets of a few Jupiter masses. Obtaining images of these objects orbiting their stars at tens to hundreds of times the earth-sun distance will allow us to complete our census of nearby exoplanetary systems and gain a more robust understanding of the true frequency of exoplanets. Even more, obtaining in an image of these objects will open the door to their direct spectroscopic study, gaining insight into their compositions and chemistries.