Exoplanets are far away, and they are often obscured by the bright light of the stars they orbit. So, taking pictures of them the same way you'd take pictures of, say, Jupiter or Venus, isn't easy.

The major problem astronomers face in trying to directly image exoplanets is that the stars they orbit are millions of times brighter than their planets. Any light reflected off of the planet or heat radiation from the planet itself is drowned out by the massive amounts of radiation coming from its host star. It's like trying to see a firefly flitting around a spotlight.

So, it takes new techniques and advancing technology to make it happen.

Watching Four Planets in Orbit

Four planets gif
Four planets are in orbit around a star 129 light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus. Credit: Jason Wang and Christian Marois

Here, the black circle in the center of the image is part of the observing and analyzing effort to block the blinding light of the star, and thus make the planets visible. Four planets more massive than Jupiter can be seen orbiting the young star HR 8799 in a composite of sorts; it includes images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii.

The images were initially captured by Dr. Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. The movie animation was put together by Jason Wang, part of the Berkeley arm of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), a NASA-sponsored group formed to encourage interdisciplinary exoplanet science.

The star, HR 8799, has continually played a pioneering role in the evolution of direct imaging of exoplanets. In 2008, the Marois group announced discovery of three of the four HR 8799 planets using direct imaging for the first time.

First Exoplanet Directly Imaged

A smaller planet is seen as a red sphere near a brighter, white-blue light of the much larger star.
This composite image shows an exoplanet (the red spot on the lower left), orbiting the brown dwarf 2M1207 (center). This photo of the exoplanet 2M1207b is based on three near-infrared exposures (in the H, K and L wavebands) with the NACO adaptive-optics facility at the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory. Credit: ESO

In 2004, the first exoplanet imaged directly was 2M1207b, four times more massive than Jupiter. European Southern Observatory astronomers using the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile. This composite image shows the exoplanet formally known as 2MASS J12073346-3932539 b (the red spot on the lower left), orbiting a brown dwarf 2M1207 (center). It orbits the failed star at a distance 55 times greater than the Earth to the Sun, nearly twice as far as Neptune is from the Sun. Planets that are far from their stars can be easier to directly image because they are less obscured by the light from their stars. The system 2M1207 is 170 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Hydra. The photo is based on three near-infrared exposures (in the H, K and L wavebands).

More than 10 years later, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to take a closer look. An artist's concept, below, is based on their observations.

A cloudy red exoplanet is seen in the dark of space.
An artist's concept of 2M1207b, a planet that is four times the mass of Jupiter and orbits 5 billion miles from its brown dwarf companion object. Image credits: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon/STScI

Hubble's image stability, high resolution, and high-contrast imaging capabilities allowed astronomers to precisely measure the planet's brightness changes as it spins. The researchers attribute the brightness variation to complex clouds patterns in the planet's atmosphere. The Hubble measurements not only verify the presence of these clouds, but also show that the cloud layers are patchy and colorless.