SuperWASP scoops ten exoplanets in six months
BY EMILY BALDWIN
Posted: April 1, 2008
Ten new exoplanets have been unveiled by the UK's SuperWASP cameras in the last six months, Dr Don Pollacco of Queen's University Belfast announced in a plenary lecture at this week's National Astronomy Meeting.
SuperWASP (where WASP is an acronym for Wide Angle Search for Planets) is the UK's leading extra-solar planet detection programme, and has scooped an impressive ten new planets in the last six months, bringing the total SuperWASP factory output to 15.
Pollacco is delighted with the results: "SuperWASP is a planet-finding production line and will revolutionise the detection of large planets and our understanding of how they were formed."
SuperWASP comprises a consortium of 8 academic institutions that operate two robotic observatories, one in the Canary Islands and one in South Africa. Both telescopes operate continuously all year round, with 8 wide-angle cameras a piece. Millions of stars can be imaged simultaneously, and up to 100 Giga-bytes of data is generated each night, enabling the SuperWASP team to check for rare transit events on a vast selection of targets. The transit method - where a planet passes directly in front of a star and blocks out some of its light, so from the Earth the star temporarily seems a little fainter - allows scientists to deduce the size and mass of each planet. Each possible planet bearing star found using SuperWASP is then observed by astronomers working at the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, the Swiss Euler Telescope in Chile and the Observatoire de Haute Provence in southern France, who use precision instruments to confirm or reject the discovery.
The SuperWASP planets have masses between 0.5 and 8.3 times that of Jupiter, putting them into the category of hot-jupiters. Some of the new discoveries are unveiling very exotic conditions: WASP-12B orbits its parent star in just 1.1 days, resulting in day time temperatures of up to 2300 degrees Celsius.
Over 270 extrasolar planets have been discovered since the early 1990s, and only 45 have been detected by the transit method. Now that SuperWASP claims 15 of those discoveries it has given the British instrument the honorable title of the most successful discovery instruments in the world. "It's a new level of planet-hunting," says Pollacco, "and SuperWASP is providing a huge contribution to this field."