Looking for strange new worlds

SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets)

While telescopes like Kepler cost hundreds of millions of dollars, planet hunting doesn’t require a fortune to succeed. One such project is SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets), which at a cost of just half a million dollars has found over 100 planets outside our Solar System. SuperWASP has two robotic observatories, one on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands and the other in South Africa. Each has eight lenses backed by high-quality CCDs to monitor stars and search for new worlds.

“We can’t compete with [the programmes] that find small rocky planets, but we can find unusual things still,” said SuperWASP team member Dr Don Pollacco. The two observatories have mostly been responsible for finding hot Jupiter-like planets, and SuperWASP can help to determine how abundant certain types of planets are in the universe.

One thing in particular that SuperWASP has helped to understand is how some of these planets got into very tight orbits around their star. “One thing SuperWASP has done over the years is that it has basically discovered that most of these planets that are close in have probably got there by interactions with other planets,” explained Dr Pollacco. “If you look at something like Pluto, what you find is that Pluto is going in the opposite direction [to the rotation of the Sun]. What that tells you is that Pluto was never born where it is now, it’s been somehow perturbed into that orbit.”

Of SuperWASP’s most notable discoveries, Dr Pollacco cites the exoplanet WASP_12b as one of his favourites. “WASP_12b is a really highly inflated planet, so it’s got a mass of Jupiter but it’s nearly twice Jupiter’s size,” he explained. ”What that really tells you is there’s some extra energy source going on in this planet that’s inflating it, and there are a number of other planets like that, but we don’t understand them.”

Next up for Pollacco and the SuperWASP team will be to begin a new experiment called the Next Generation Transit Survey. “We’re very close now to being able to detect planets with periods of maybe 100 or more days,” explained Dr Pollacco. “They will potentially be two or three times the size of Earth and maybe ten Earth masses, so they’re potentially rocky planets. And we’re doing this all from the [surface of the Earth], you don’t need to spend $600m [on a space telescope] to do it.”

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