Planet hunters find ten new worlds

Two planet-hunting observatories built in the UK with the help of eBay have discovered ten new worlds in just six months. It brings their overall tally to 15, making them the most successful discovery instruments in the world.

One of the Wasp planet-seekersThe observatories are each made up of a battery of eight cameras which scan the sky for flickers in starlight indicating the planets’ existence.

Astronomers had to turn to the auction site to track down 13 lenses, costing £4,000 each, after they learned that Canon no longer made them.

News of the impressive tally by the observatories in the Canary Islands and South Africa will be revealed to astronomers meeting in Belfast today.

The sky survey project, called SuperWASP – short for Super Wide Angle Search for Planets – watches millions of stars every night.

More than 270 so-called extrasolar planets have been discovered orbiting other stars since the first was found in the early 1990s.

Most were detected by a wobble in the star’s position due to the planet’s gravitational tug on it. SuperWasp uses a different method, watching for a tiny dip in the star’s brightness caused by a Jupiter-sized planet passing in front of it.

Each observatory is kitted out with the specially-built digital cameras which cost £30,000 each and were made by Andor Technology in Belfast. Together they cover an area of sky 250 times the size of the Full Moon.

Complex computer software constantly checks the brightness of every star in the area being viewed, building up millions of measurements.

The planets detected automatically by SuperWASP were then confirmed using giant telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Chile and Southern France.

The new planets range in size from half to 8.3 times the size of Jupiter. One, named WASP-12B, takes just over a day to orbits its parent star. It lies so close to it that daytime temperatures are thought to reach 2,300 C.

Discovery team member Dr Don Pollacco, of Queen’s University Belfast, said: “SuperWASP is now a planet-finding production line and will revolutionise the detection of large planets and our understanding of how they were formed. It’s a great triumph for European astronomers.”

Dr Carole Haswell, of the Open University at Milton Keynes, had the idea of using eBay to find the extra lenses from sellers around the world. This week’s National Astronomy Meeting is organised by the Royal Astronomical Society.

The photo shows one of the SuperWasp cameras. Picture: David Anderson

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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