Strange new worlds. They're out there, but has anyone actually seen a planet beyond our solar system? Ben Oppenheimer, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, aims to be the first. He has built a camera, called the Lyot Project Coronagraph, that blots out the blinding rays of stars so their orbiting planets can be directly imaged.
This spring, he and his colleagues installed the camera on a sophisticated U.S. Air Force telescope at the top of Haleakala, a dormant volcano on Maui. The $2 million coronagraph was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and private donors.
In the past decade, scientists have indirectly detected more than 100 planets by observing their "wobble" effect on their parent stars. Direct images would greatly expand our understanding of these planets, revealing their mass, composition, and whether they have atmospheres that could possibly harbor life there. And Dr. Oppenheimer's camera will be ready for stellar close-ups. …