More planets discovered thanks to SA contribution

2017-11-07 12:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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(iStock)

(iStock)

Cape Town - Three new planets have been detected through the SuperWASP consortium that includes the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

According to Sputnik, the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets (SuperWASP) added three new planets to the ever-growing list of planets discovered in the universe. 

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SuperWASP is "UK's leading extra-solar planet detection programme", according to their website, and data is sourced from two observatories, SAAO in Sutherland and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in Spain.

South Africa has some of the best views for astronomy enthusiasts, with a smorgasbord of stargazing hotspots that stretch beyond Sutherland.

Two of the planets are similar to Saturn, though larger and hotter due to their proximity to their stars.

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Scientists however are most excited about the third one, WASP-156b, which is similar to our Neptune but two and a half times bigger. Sputnik notes that finding Neptune-like super-earth planets is quite rare compared to other gas and terrestrial planets, so much so that the phenomenon has its own name - the 'Neptunian Desert'. 

The paper that submitted the finding posits that these three planets could help explain this phenomenon.

"WASP-156b, being one of the few well characterised Super-Neptunes, will help to constrain the formation of Neptune size planets and the transition between gas and ice giants... Finally, these three planets also lie close to [...] or below [...] the upper boundary of the Neptunian desert. Their characteristics support that the ultra-violet irradiation plays an important role in this depletion of planets observed in the exoplanet population."

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SuperWASP explains that exoplanets - planets that orbit a star other than our Sun - are not the easiest celestial bodies to find, because they don't emit their own light. The stars they orbit then tend to obscure these planets, and thus can't be viewed through normal means.

Planet hunters thus use methods like pulsar timing, radial-velocity, and gravitational lensing to find them in a game of celestial hide-and-seek. Many of the planets found so far however have mostly been hot gas giants that cannot support life.

Thus the search continues for for the little green men.

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