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Queen’s astronomer searches for new planets in ‘100 nights’ study

The discovery of new SuperWASP planets will be one of the aims of Queen’s University astronomer Dr Don Pollacco, following the announcement that he has been awarded 100 nights study at the Northern Hemisphere Observatory in the Canary Islands.

This unprecedented award for a Northern Ireland astronomer is built on the success of the Queen’s SuperWASP experiment designed to detect extra solar planets which had its first successes in 2006.

From the School of Physics at Queen’s, Dr Pollacco will begin his 100 nights study tonight (Wednesday, 1 August). The study will run across the next year.

Twenty planets have been discovered by the SuperWASP experiment so far, which is a Queen’s University led project aimed at detecting extra-solar planets. The technique used involves taking images of large parts of the sky with a purpose built, robotic, ultra wide field camera. Sophisticated software is then used to detect the weak signal of a transiting extra-solar planet. This occurs whenever a planet moves across the face of its host star.

Looking forward to the project work, Dr Pollacco said: “The award will enable us to use the telescopes within an integrated programme allowing even the smallest telescopes to make important and valuable contributions.

“While the study of exoplanets is still in its infancy, the UK has generally been seen to be lagging behind other countries. This award however firmly places the Queen’s Exoplanet group towards the forefront of this exciting area.”

Among the all night telescopes that will be used on Tenerife and La Palma are the 4.2m William Herschel and the 0.8 m IAC telescope.

In addition to the work on SuperWASP, the ‘100 nights’ award will also allow Dr Pollacco to examine a further four interconnected projects:

•The detection of massed exoplanets. These systems are, in nearly every case, composed of a large Jupiter sized planet.

•Searching for moons and rings around exoplanets. This uses new equipment to look for distortions in the light curve caused by these bodies.

•Searching for exoplanets around small stars.

•Detection of brown dwarfs, objects that don’t get quite hot enough to initiate nuclear reactions.

Lisa Mitchell | alfa
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