Finding Exoplanets with Quantum Imaging

Physics 14, s122
Treating stars and planets as quantum objects could make it easier for astronomers to directly image exoplanets.
Z. Huang and C. Lupo [1]

Of the approximately 4500 known extrasolar planets, only about 1% were found by imaging the planets directly. The reason for the low direct-detection rate is that the dim light scattered from an exoplanet is hard to recognize amid the glare of the planet’s parent star. Now, Zixin Huang at Macquarie University, Australia, and Cosmo Lupo at the University of Sheffield, UK, predict that quantum imaging could significantly improve the probability of directly detecting an exoplanet [1]. They also show that the ultimate sensitivity limit for this task is already reachable for two currently available techniques—one based on interferometry, the other on the decomposition of light from the image from a star into different spatial modes (see Viewpoint: Unlocking the Hidden Information in Starlight).

Huang and Lupo approach the task of finding planets by treating the problem as one of quantum state discrimination, where the two quantum states—“star plus planet” and “star only”—are linked to the spatial distribution of the detected photons. They find that the probability of correctly discriminating between these states depends on the angular separation between the star and the planet, the brightness ratio of the two objects, and the number of photons collected by the telescope.

The researchers predict that, as these variables change, the “discrimination-error” probability of their quantum approach scales differently from the classical approach. They find that only quantum-imaging techniques reach the fundamental error-probability limit. Thus, compared to current methods, quantum techniques should be able to detect exoplanets that are dimmer, closer to their stars, or both.

–Marric Stephens

Marric Stephens is a Corresponding Editor for Physics Magazine based in Bristol, UK.


  1. Z. Huang and C. Lupo, “Quantum hypothesis testing for exoplanet detection,” Phys. Rev. Lett. 127, 130502 (2021).

Subject Areas

Quantum PhysicsAstrophysicsOptics

Related Articles

Quantum “Torch” Begins Its Relay
Quantum Physics

Quantum “Torch” Begins Its Relay

A quantum light source is touring European labs in preparation for the 2025 International Year of Quantum Science and Technology. Read More »

Quantum Machine Learning Goes Photonic
Quantum Physics

Quantum Machine Learning Goes Photonic

Measuring a photon’s angular momentum after it passes through optical devices teaches an algorithm to reconstruct the properties of the photon’s initial quantum state. Read More »

A Pathway to Making Molecular Oxygen That Doesn’t Involve Life

A Pathway to Making Molecular Oxygen That Doesn’t Involve Life

Researchers have quantified a pathway for the formation of molecular oxygen from the interaction of carbon dioxide with electrons, key information for searches of life on other worlds. Read More »

More Articles