Astronomers have confirmed the existence of almost 1000 planets orbiting distant stars (as of May 31, 2013). And we have several thousand more candidate planets. But how many have we seen directly? Answer: almost none.
And it isn’t because they are too small- we can small objects, or because they are too dim- we can see dim objects. The problem is that they are too close to bright objects, their parent star. It’s like looking for a match, beside a lighthouse lamp. Turn the lighthouse off and you can see it. A new tweak on an old method in optical physics, an adaptive optics, can be used to blank out the star.
So far, astronomers have directly observed only a dozen exoplanets. The image below shows the lightest one imaged so far, announced by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on June 3, 2013. The blue circle in the image below is the size of the orbit of Neptune – 8th planet from the sun in our solar system. The star in the center is HD 95086, located about 300 light-years away. The likely planet appears as a faint but clear dot close to the star.