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Project 1640 offers new way to search for planets beyond our solar system

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It's taken more than six years of development, but a new imaging system for the Palomar Observatory's 200-inch Hale Telescope finally started capturing images last month, and promises to aid significantly in the search for planets outside our solar system (otherwise known as exoplanets). With the suitably mysterious name of "Project 1640," the new instrument is the first of its kind that's able to directly spot planets orbiting distant suns -- as opposed to existing systems that use indirect detection methods to determine the orbit of exoplanets. To do that, Project 1640 effectively blots out the light from stars, which allows astronomers to more clearly observe what might be around them, including objects up to 10 million times fainter than the star itself (the image on the right above is a nearby star captured with the imaging system in place, compared to the same star captured without the new system on the left). Those curious can find more specifics on just how that's accomplished in the official announcement linked below.

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