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Astronomers reach for the sky and find new planets

By Claire McNeilly

Belfast astronomers have pushed reaching for the skies into another dimension by finding three new planets.

The UK's leading team of planet-hunting astronomers - based at Queen's University - recently announced the discovery of three additional entities.

Originating from the local world of academia, SuperWASP is the most ambitious project in the world designed to discover large planets. The project team are the first to have found transiting planets in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The acronym WASP stands for 'Wide Area Search for Planets', a consortium of UK universities searching for transiting exoplanets. Using data produced by SuperWASP's cameras, which monitor up to 400,000 stars every minute, the new extra-solar planets were discovered as they were seen to pass in front of their host star.

Explaining the discovery, Dr Don Pollacco of Queen's Astrophysics Research Centre, said their existence added a brand new facet to astronomy.

"We take pictures of the sky and measure the brightness of stars," he said.

"If a planet is going around one of these stars and it happens to pass across the face of that star, our cameras will pick up the light from the star getting a little fainter. Discoveries such as these open up a whole new area of astronomy. Such transiting planets are important because they are the only ones that can have their mass and size measured directly. Astronomers can determine what they are made of and armed with this information we can begin to understand how these solar systems were formed."

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," Mr Pollacco added.

"Being so close to their star, the surface temperatures of the planets will be more than 2000 C, so it is unlikely that life as we know it could survive there. However, the finding of Jupiter-mass planets around other stars supports the idea that there are also many Earth-sized planets waiting to be discovered."

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