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).
WASP is funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and Queens University Belfast.
Images of the construction site are available from http://www.superwasp.org/projectphotos.html
Further information is available on the project website http://www.superwasp.org
Notes for editors:
WASP's equipment consists of:
Technical details can be found at http://www.superwasp.org/technical.html
The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four areas of science -- particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.
PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), and the European Space Agency. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at sJodrell Bank observatory.
PPARC's Public Understanding of Science and Technology Awards Scheme funds both small local projects and national initiatives aimed at improving public understanding of its areas of science.
IMAGE CAPTION: [http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/Press/JOVIANhires.jpg (1.3MB)] An artist's impression of the possible scene from a moon orbiting an extra-solar planet in orbit around the star HD 23079. The planet is about three times the mass of Jupiter and orbits the star in 628 days, with a nearly circular orbit of one and half times the Earth-Sun distance (almost the same as that of Mars). Artist's impression by David A. Hardy.