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Last Updated: Friday, 16 April, 2004, 06:30 GMT 07:30 UK
Scientists seek unknown planets
The project aims to seek planets outside the solar system
An ambitious project to seek planets outside the solar system is being spearheaded by UK scientists.

The ground breaking SuperWASP initiative is being launched by a team of astronomers at an observatory in the Canary Islands on Friday.

The programme, which involves a network of cameras around the world, will measure the brightness of 50 million stars every night.

The prototype WASP camera was developed at Queen's University, Belfast.

Dr Don Pollacco of the university's Astorphysics and Planetary Science Division built the 400,000 camera.

"While the construction and initial commissioning phases of the facility have taken only nine months, SuperWASP represents the culmination of many years work from astronomers within the WASP consortium," said Dr Pollacco.

SuperWASP is the most ambitious project of its kind anywhere in the world
Dr Don Pollacco
Queen's University Belfast

One of the main features of the project is its CCD cameras which were produced in Belfast and can operate in conditions of very low light.

The instrument, which is now entering its operational phase, will eventually be capable of running under robotic control.

It is currently being stored in a customised building at Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, and is operated by the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics.

"SuperWASP has a novel optical design comprising up to eight scientific cameras, each resembling in operation a household digital camera, and collectively attached to a conventional telescope mount," said Dr Pollacco.

"Its field of view is some 2,000 times greater than a conventional astronomical telescope.

"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.

"Only about 100 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.

"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 brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars."

The project has received funding from Queen's University, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council - the UK's strategic science investment agency - and the Open University.

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