Apr. 19, 2004 A consortium of astronomers is tomorrow (April 16th) celebrating the commissioning of the SuperWASP facility at the astronomical observatory on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, designed to detect thousands of planets outside of our own solar system.
Only about a hundred extra-solar planets are currently known, and many questions about their formation and evolution remain unanswered due to the lack of observational data. This situation is expected to improve dramatically as SuperWASP produces scientific results.
The SuperWASP facility is now entering its operational phase. Construction of the instrument began in May 2003, and in autumn last year the first test data was obtained which showed the instrument's performance to exceed initial expectations.
SuperWASP is the most ambitious project of its kind anywhere in the world. Its extremely wide field of view combined with its ability to measure brightness very precisely allows it to view large areas of the sky and accurately monitor the brightnesses of hundreds of thousands of stars.
If any of these have nearby Jupiter-sized planets then they may move across the face of their parent star, as viewed from the Earth. While no telescope could actually see the planet directly, its passage or transit, blocks out a small proportion of the parent star's light i.e. we see the star get slightly fainter for a few hours. In our own solar system a similar phenomenon will occur on 8th June 2004 when Venus will transit the Sun's disk.
One nights' observing with SuperWASP will generate a vast amount of data, up to 60 GB - about the size of a typical modern computer hard disk (or 42000 floppy disks). This data is then processed using sophisticated software and stored in a public database within the Leicester Database and Archive Service of the University of Leicester.
The Principal Investigator for the Project, Dr Don Pollacco (Queens University Belfast), said "While the construction and initial commissioning phases of the facility have been only 9 months long, SuperWASP represents the culmination of many years work from astronomers within the WASP consortium. Data from SuperWASP will lead to exciting progress in many areas of astronomy, ranging from the discovery of planets around nearby stars to the early detection of other classes of variable objects such as supernovae in distant galaxies".
Dr René Rutten (Director of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes) said "SuperWASP is a very nice example of how clever ideas to exploit the latest technology can open new windows to explore the universe around us, and shows that important scientific programmes can be done at very modest cost."
The history of the project over the last ten years including the exciting discovery of the Sodium Tail of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 can be found at http://www.superwasp.org/history.html and enclosed web links.
The SuperWASP facility is operated by the WASP consortium involving astronomers from the following institutes: Queen's University Belfast, University of Cambridge, Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (La Palma), University of Keele, University of Leicester, Open University and University of St Andrews.
The SuperWASP instrument has cost approximately £400K, and was funded by major financial contributions from Queen's University Belfast, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Open University. SuperWASP is located in the Spanish Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, Canary Islands which is operated by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC).
Pictures of the SuperWASP facility and some of its astronomical first-light images are available at http://www.superwasp.org/firstlight.html.
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