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Super-Cameras Detect New Planets

A team of researchers from the University of St. Andrews recently announced the discovery of three new planets orbiting a sun almost 1,000 light years away from Earth. The new Jupiter-sized planets are orbiting their stars so closely that according to the observations, their ‘year’ lasts less than two days – among the shortest orbital periods to be discovered. This discovery brings the total of known extra solar planets to 263.

Professor Andrew Collier Cameron of the St. Andrew University’s School of Physics & Astronomy played an important role in the recent discovery of three planets said to be as big as Jupiter.

Cameron is a member of the Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) team, which also includes astronomers from the University of Keele and from Queen’s University in Belfast. Therefore, the astronomers named the newly discovered planets WASP-3, WASP-4 and WASP-5. The recent discovery, which was made using `super-cameras’ (SuperWASP) in South Africa and the Canary Islands, which monitor millions of stars over the entire night sky, has made the WASP team l the only team of scientists to have found transiting planets in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Last year, the team discovered two new planets, which they named WASP-1 and WASP-2.

Professor Cameron, who measured the sizes of the new extra-solar planets, 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. Being so close to their stars, the surface temperatures of the planets will be more than 2,000 degrees Celsius, so it is unlikely that life as we know it could survive there. But the finding of Jupiter-mass planets around other stars might also support the idea that there are also many Earth-sized planets waiting to be discovered as astronomers’ technology improves.”

Over 200 extra-solar planets (those that orbit other stars, rather than our Sun) are currently known to astronomers. The three new planets were found as the WASP cameras detected small decreases in the brightness of the host stars. This phenomenon, called transit, is usually caused by planets passing in front of their sun. Studying planets outside our solar system allows scientists to investigate how planetary systems form.

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.”

WASP-4 and WASP-5 are the first planets discovered by the WASP project’s cameras in South Africa, and were confirmed in collaboration with Swiss and French astronomers. “These two are now the brightest transiting planets in the Southern hemisphere,” said Dr. Hellier. WASP-3 is the third planet the team has discovered in the northern hemisphere, using the SuperWASP camera situated in the Canary Islands.

Dr. Don Pollacco of Queen’s University in Belfast said, “We are the only team to have found transiting planets in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres; for the first time we have both SuperWASP cameras running, giving complete coverage of the whole sky.”

The WASP project is the most ambitious project designed to discover large planets. Funding for the project comes from the three universities and from the Science and Technology Facility Council.

TFOT recently reported several other important discoveries including the first conclusive evidence for water on an extra solar planet located some 63 light years away from Earth and the first ever quadruple-star system, which may also contain planets.

More information on the discovery can be found on the University of St. Andrews website.