Construction has now started in La Palma on the first of three new cameras designed to look for planets outside our own solar system. To date about a hundred of these planets have been found by teams of scientists from around the world using various techniques, but the ambitious new WASP project hopes to find over a thousand new planets similar to Jupiter!
WASP, the wide-angle search for planets, will be formed of a network of at least three cameras, which will accurately measure the brightness of a million stars every minute. Astronomers will look for variations in the brightness of stars, which can indicate a planet passing in front of the star.
The easiest sorts of planets to see are large Jupiter-sized objects, close to the star they orbit, known as 'hot Jupiters'. They also hope to detect variations due to asteroids passing near stars and giant explosions known as novae or supernovae.
Unusually, much of the equipment being used in WASP is similar to that used by amateur astronomers, but of research quality and used in a novel way. It is also innovative in its operation, as the system requires little supervision, Don Pollacco of Queens University Belfast explains: "Each camera in WASP is designed to run under robotic control with minimal human interaction."
Pete Wheatley, University of Leicester adds: "The first camera will generate 30 Gigabytes of data per night (equivalent to roughly 40 CDs!) and the entire network, once completed, should produce 16,000 Gigabytes a year, giving us a colossal processing task."
Planning permission for the work on La Palma was given earlier this month and clearing of the site started last week. Installation should start early June 2003 and WASP should see first light in the summer of 2003. La Palma is a premier site for astronomy, in the Canary Islands.
The WASP consortium consists of astronomers from: Queens University Belfast, the Universities of Cambridge, Keele, Leicester, St Andrews, the Open University, the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (La Palma) and the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (Tenerife).
Technical details of SuperWasp
The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
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European Astronomers Observe First Evaporating Planet
Paris - Mar 17, 2003
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, for the first time, astronomers have observed the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet evaporating off into space. Much of this planet may eventually disappear, leaving only a dense core. The planet is a type of extrasolar planet known as a "hot Jupiter". These giant, gaseous planets orbit their stars very closely, drawn to them like moths to a flame.
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