Extrasolar planets must be imaged directly if their nature is to be better understood. But this will be difficult, as the bright light from the parent star (or rather its diffracted halo in the imaging apparatus) can easily overwhelm nearby faint sources. Bracewell has proposed a way of selectively removing starlight before detection, by superposing the light from two telescopes so that the stellar wavefronts interfere destructively. Such a 'nulling' interferometer could be used in space to search for extrasolar Earth-like planets through their thermal emission and to determine through spectroscopic analysis if they possess the atmospheric signatures of life. Here we report mid-infrared observations using two co-mounted telescopes of the Multiple Mirror Telescope that demonstrate the viability of this technique. Images of unresolved stars are seen to disappear almost completely, while light from a nearby source as close as 0.2 arcsec remains, as shown by images of Betelgeuse. With this star cancelled, there remains the thermal image of its surrounding, small dust nebula. In the future, larger ground-based interferometers that correct for atmospheric distortions (using adaptive optics) should achieve better cancellation, allowing direct detection of warm, Jupiter-size planets and faint zodiacal dust around other nearby stars.
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