Three new planets orbiting distant stars have been discovered by a team including University of Sussex undergraduate Kevin Apps. They are the first planets to be discovered by a British-funded telescope and by a mainly British team.
"This project is giving us a very important first glimpse into how our solar system fits in with others," says Apps. "It also gives us a perspective on ourselves in that our solar system appears to be quite unusual."
The three planets were discovered using the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) in New South Wales, which began monitoring 200 stars in the Southern sky in 1998 and which is unusual in being able to detect much smaller planets than other telescopes.
Although these planets are too small actually to be viewed directly, the effect of their presence can be seen by the 'Doppler shifting' that their gravitational pull causes on the light from the star they are orbiting.
Viewing the light from the planets themselves will have to wait for new projects such as the Very Large Telescope Inteferometer (VLTI) now being built at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, NASA's Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) and the European Space Agency's Eddington and Darwin missions.
Of the three planets, the smallest - known as a 'hot Jupiter' - lies closer to its parent star than Mercury does to the Sun, and takes just three Earth days to complete its orbit around the snappily titled star HD179949. The second newly discovered planet has an orbit more like the Earth's and takes 426 days to orbit the star called epsilon Reticulum. However, the planet itself is not Earth-like and is thought instead to be a gas giant similar to Jupiter.
Completing the hat-trick is another large Jupiter-like planet taking a leisurely 743 days to orbit the mu Ara star. The team also discovered a 'failed' star - known as a 'brown dwarf' - orbiting another star, known as HD164427.
Since the first planet outside our solar system was discovered by a Swiss team in 1995, some 46 others have been found. None of them are capable of supporting life as we know it. Apps has been involved in two previous planet discoveries, in 1998 and again in 1999. Now a finalist who hopes to go on to postgraduate study in the States, he says of the latest discovery: "This is obviously very good for my future career."
Notes for editors
For further information, please contact Peter Simmons or Alison Field at the University of Sussex
email P.J.Simmons@sussex.ac.uk or A.Field@sussex.ac.uk. Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456