Project 1640

Project 1640 Logo

Project 1640 conducts remote reconnaissance of planetary systems around stars other than the Sun.

Specifically it is designed to image planets orbiting nearby stars and to acquire low-resolution spectra of them simultaneously. It is currently the most advanced and highest contrast imaging system in the world and was successfully installed at the Palomar 200-inch telescope July 2008, with a major upgrade and additional control systems added by June 2012.  The project involves optical instrumentation, built at the AMNH, Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech.  

Observations at Palomar are on-going for a 3-year survey of some 200 nearby stars to find any type of object orbiting them. The primary goal is comparative spectroscopy of young, warm giant planets around these stars, to understand the range of planets extant, and how they form and evolve.

The combination of an extreme adaptive optics system, an advanced coronagraph and hyperspectral imager, and a unique wavefront sensor calibration unit, allows for the detection of objects up to ten-million times fainter than a star within a field of view of 4 arc seconds. This project involves efforts in science-grounded instrument conception and design; optical, mechanical and electrical engineering; development of novel techniques for the manipulation and control of light from distant stars at the level of λ/1000; systems engineering and integration; control and data reduction software; software for the identification and spectrum extraction of possible stellar companions—an effort that includes expertise from the field of computer vision; advanced detector control; and all of the tools of modern astronomy brought to bear on the fundamentally difficult problem of high-contrast imaging: astrometry, coronagraphy, spectroscopy, photometry and various aspects of point-source analysis and signal processing.

Press Releases

March 11, 2013: Astronomers Conduct First Remote Reconnaissance of Another Solar System:  Project 1640 Reveals Chemical Composition of Four Red Exoplanets 128 Light Years Away

Research Paper: 

Reconnaissance of the HR 8799 Exosolar System I

by Oppenheimer et al. 2013, Astrophysical Journal, in press.

Images and Movies mentioned in the press release:

HR 8799 System Image
Image of the HR8799 planets with starlight optically suppressed and data processing conducted to remove residual starlight. The star is at the center of the blackened circle in the image. The four spots indicated with the letters b through e are the planets. This is a composite image using 30 wavelengths of light and was obtained over a period of 1.25 hours on June 14 and 15, 2012. 


A graph.
Spectra of all four planets orbiting HR 8799.  The plot shows how bright each object is (y-axis) versus the wavelength of light or color measured. Dips and peaks in these plots are due to the presence or absence of certain molecules (indicated at the top of the plot).

Digital Universe Movie: This visualization, produced using the Hayden Planetarium’s Digital Universe—the most comprehensive and scientifically accurate, three-dimensional map of the known universe— shows where the star HR 8799 is in relation to our solar system. Recently, a team of researchers led by the American Museum of Natural History used a suite of high-tech instrumentation and software called Project 1640 ( to collect the first chemical fingerprints, or spectra, of the four red exoplanets orbiting this star. This visualization also shows other stars that are known to harbor planetary systems (stars with blue circles around them). HR 8799’s system, which is 128 light years away from Earth, is one of only a couple of these stars that have been imaged, and the only one for which spectroscopy of all the planets has been obtained. Over the next three years, the team will survey many of these other stars in the same manner in which they studied HR 8799.


Series of five images showing how a "portrait" of four planets orbiting a star was obtained.
This series of images demonstrates how the portrait of the planetary system around HR 8799 was obtained. (i) The telescope is pointed at the star. An image shows how it looks before any of the corrective parts of the instrument are turned on. The star is a blurry blob due to the effects of Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. The black spot in the center is the occulting optic in the coronagraph that blocks out starlight. (ii) The adaptive optics system has been turned on, to correct the atmospheric turbulence, and the star image is greatly sharpened, reaching the limit of the telescope in sharpness. This is a very short 1.5-second exposure. (iii) The star is placed under the occulting optic and a long exposure of five minutes is taken. In this image, most of the starlight has been removed, but a remaining pattern of “speckles” fills the field of view.  These are due to defects in the optics. (iv) The calibration wave front sensor is turned on and effects the dimming of the speckles. Numerous long exposures are taken over a 1.25 hour period. (v) The data are assembled and processed with a novel technique based on advances in computer vision to remove the residual starlight and reveal the exoplanets.  Spectra can be extracted once the locations of the planets in the image are determined.



An example of a long exposure of the HR 8799 system. The star is at the center of the image, blocked by the coronagraph. Each frame of this movie shows a slightly longer wavelength of light, or color progressing through 30 different wavelengths from 1.0 μm to 1.75 μm in the “near infrared,” colors too red for the human eye to see. The speckles move radially outward from the star because they are an optical effect. Because they move in the movie, and real celestial objects do not change position at different colors on the sky, the planets around this star can be found using software that looks for objects that do not move in this movie.


July 5, 2012:  New Instrument Sifts Through Star Light to Reveal New Worlds: Project 1640 Starts Star-Imaging Survey in Palomar Observatory’s Hale Telescope.

December 9, 2009: A Faint Star Orbiting the Big Dipper's Alcor Discovered.