This article was updated on August 3, 2020, at 11:55 am.
Astronomers have a saying about how difficult it is to see a distant planet outside of our own solar system: It’s like spotting a firefly next to a lighthouse.
Stars are so luminous that they block our view of planets that might be orbiting nearby, so astronomers have to work around them. They use special instruments on telescopes to block the light coming from these celestial beacons. With the glare gone, they can detect something else: heat radiating off of planets. In the resulting observations, the worlds are easier to spot—glowing orbs in the darkness, like fireflies hovering in the heat of a summer night.
This is how astronomers captured two planets around a star that resides about 300 light-years away from Earth. The portrait, released yesterday, is rare. Astronomers have directly taken images of individual exoplanets before. And they have previously captured cosmic family portraits: planets together with stars brighter and heavier than our sun. But this is the first time anyone has captured two exoplanets around a sunlike star.
In the photo at the top of this story, the star is at left. The planets are not rocky like Earth, but gaseous like Jupiter, and more massive than Jupiter too. They are also extremely hot, still cooling down from their fiery formation out of a stew of dust and gas. At 17 million years old, their star is a baby version of our sun. Matthew Kenworthy, an astronomy professor at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, who was involved with the research, told me that if our sun was his age, 46, this star would be just nine weeks old.*