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Astronomers have been finding planets around distant stars for more than a decade now, and the count is currently up around 400. But the vast majority of these so-called exoplanets have been seen indirectly, by their gravitational effects or by the dimming caused when they pass in front of their parent stars. To really understand what a planet is like in detail, you have to see it directly, and that's incredibly hard to do with today's technology. (See pictures of the launch of NASA's Ares rocket.)
But an international team has done it. In May and August, using the powerful Subaru telescope in Hawaii, which is equipped with a new, state-of-the art planet detector, astronomers from Japan, the U.S. and Germany snapped pictures of an object they're calling GJ 758 B, orbiting a Sun-like star GJ 758, about 50 light-years from Earth and between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. Scientists have narrowed their estimate of the mass of GJ 758 B only to about 10 to 40 times the mass of Jupiter. If it's more than 13 Jupiter masses, it would usually be considered a brown dwarf, which is a kind of failed star. "We're calling it a planet-like object rather than a planet," says Michael McElwain, a postdoctoral student at Princeton who co-authored the discovery paper for Astrophysical Journal Letters published last month.