They do say that you can find anything on eBay. Now British planet-hunters have used the auction site to help discover three new worlds outside the solar system.
The planets – all giants around the size of Jupiter – were spotted using the team’s robotic observatories in the Canary Islands and South Africa. But amazingly, they had to turn to the internet auction site to source vital equipment needed to carry out their cosmic search.
Each observatory is fitted with a bank of eight powerful cameras to form a £30,000 instrument called SuperWASP – the Wide Area Search for Planets – which produces high-resolution pictures of the sky. The £2 million project uses computers to watch millions of stars a night for tiny fades in their starlight that reveal any distant planets passing in front of them.
The SuperWASP lenses need to be of such high quality that they cost £4,000 each. But to their horror, the team assembling the equipment discovered that they were 13 lenses short and camera giant Canon had stopped making them.
Dr Carole Haswell, an astronomer at the Open University in Milton Keynes, hit on the idea of the idea of trying to find them online.
She said: “I was a complete novice on eBay whan I first used it to buy the lenses so it was a bit nerve-wracking, especially as our purchasing dept were less than thrilled about the whole idea.
“The OU was the only university prepared to even countenance the plan!”
The SuperWASP team set up their own account on eBay and, to their great relief, managed to track down the vital telephoto lenses from a dealer in South Korea.
One of the new planets, dubbed WASP-3, was found with the team’s observatory on La Palma in the Canaries. The others, labelled WASP-4 and WASP-5, were detected from Sutherland in South Africa and are the brightest planets around other stars found in the southern hemisphere.
The UK team have previously discovered two other planets outside the solar system. More than 200 of these so-called exoplanets have been spotted by astronomers around the world.
SuperWASP scientist Professor Andrew Cameron, of St Andrews University, Scotland, said: “All three planets are similar to Jupiter, but are orbiting their stars so closely that their ‘year’ lasts less than two days. These are among the shortest orbital periods yet discovered.”
Virtually all planets so far found have been so-called “hot Jupiters” in rapid orbits around their parent stars, including the hottest planet yet identified last May.
The new planets are so close to their stars that temperatures must be too hot for life as we know it to exist. But experts say their discovery boosts the chances that there are also many Earth-sized planets waiting to be discovered as technology improves. Europe’s Corot probe, launched last year, has the capability to find smaller worlds like Earth.
By monitoring the change in light as a planet passes in front of its parent star, astronomers can tell a lot about it – even what the planet’s atmosphere is made of.
Dr Coel Hellier, of Keele University, said: “When we see a transit we can deduce the size and mass of the planet and also what it is made of, so we can use these planets to study how solar systems form.”
The photo shows one of the SuperWasp cameras. Picture: David Anderson
• What do you think? Skymania welcomes your comments and views. Check out our new guide to Mars too. And support this site by visiting Skymania’s stores in the USA, the UK, Canada and France. They are powered by Amazon so you can buy with confidence.