UK-Spanish collaboration set to uncover thousands of new planets

April 19, 2004

Brussels, 16 Apr 2004

UK and Spanish astronomers are to begin using a newly constructed instrument based on La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain, to chart thousands of as yet undiscovered planets outside of our own solar system.

Currently, scientists are only aware of around 100 extra-solar planets, and there are many unanswered questions surrounding their formation and evolution due to a lack of observational data. The new instrument, dubbed SuperWASP, is designed to provide scientists with exactly that data.

Construction on the SuperWASP facility began in May 2003, and the project is now entering its operational phase. The first test data, produced at the end of last year, revealed a level of performance that exceeded the consortium's initial expectations.

The project's principle investigator, Dr Don Pollacco from Queen's University Belfast, said: 'SuperWASP represents the culmination of many years' work from astronomers within the WASP consortium. Data from SuperWASP will lead to exciting progress in many areas of astronomy, ranging from the discovery of planets around nearby stars to the early detection of other classes of variable objects such as supernovae in distant galaxies.'

The key features of SuperWASP that allow it to chart distant objects like never before are its extremely wide field of view, and ability to very precisely measure brightness. These ensure that at any one time, it can accurately monitor the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars.

If there are Jupiter-sized planets orbiting these stars, then it is possible that they will move across their face as seen from Earth at some point. This will ensure that the planet blocks out a small proportion of the parent star's light for a few hours, which will be picked up by SuperWASP.

During an average night of observation, the instrument will generate some 60 gigabytes of data, roughly the size of a modern computer's hard disk. This data is then processed by sophisticated software and stored in a public database located at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Another WASP member-institute is the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes based in La Palma. Its director, Dr René Rutten, said: 'SuperWASP is a very nice example of how clever ideas to exploit the latest technology can open new windows to explore the universe around us, and shows that important scientific programmes can be done at very modest cost.'

The total funding needed to construct the instrument was around 600,000 euro, and was provided by Queen's University Belfast, the UK particle physics and astronomy research council, and the UK's Open University.

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CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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