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Queen’s astronomers ‘over the moon’ with £3m

The future of Queen’s University Belfast's planet-finding SuperWASP project has been secured until 2011 following an announcement of £3 million in grants to the University’s Astrophysics Research Centre (ARC).

In April, Queen’s astronomers announced the discovery of ten new planets as a result of their Wide Area Search for Planets project known as SuperWASP. They are known as extrasolar planets, in orbit around other stars.

Using two new sets of cameras designed at Queen’s, SuperWASP watches for events known as transits. This is where a planet passes directly in front of a star and blocks out some of its light, so from the earth the star temporarily appears a little fainter.

The cameras, based on La Palma in the Canary Islands, work as robots, surveying a large area of the sky at once. Each night astronomers have data from millions of stars that they can check for transits. The transit method also allows scientists to deduce the size and mass of each planet.

Now, following a grant of £500,000 from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), SuperWASP will continue to operate until 2011.

Dr Don Pollacco of Queen’s ARC said: “SuperWASP is now a planet-finding production line and one of the most successful discovery instruments in the world. Seventeen exoplanets have been found in the last two years alone. It will revolutionise the detection of large planets and our understanding of how they were formed. It is a great triumph for European astronomers. I suppose you could say we are over the moon to have secured the future of such an important project for the next three years.”

A further £2.2 million, from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), will support a range of astronomical research programmes within ARC for the next five years.

These include studies of the Sun and other stars, the search for planets orbiting stars other than the Sun (the so-called exoplanets), investigations of supernovae (stars which end their lives in massive explosions), the detection and study of comets and asteroids, and the investigation of chemical processes in material from which stars form.

Professor Philip Dufton, Director of ARC, said: “These awards recognise the world-leading research programmes undertaken within ARC. They are particularly impressive given the current major financial squeeze on research grants from STFC. With this significant increase in funding, ARC will be able to take a leading role in several important international research initiatives in the years to come.”

An additional award of over £300,000 has also been made to Professor Francis Keenan, Head of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s. From AWE Aldermaston, the award is a renewal of Professor Keenan’s William Penney Fellowship for the period 2008 to 2011. The Fellowship is focused on the study of plasmas in the laboratory which mimic those found in astronomy, but also involves publicising the importance of science and physics to schoolchildren and the public.

Further information on the ARC at Queen’s can be found by visiting

Lisa Mitchell | alfa
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