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Cardiff students see planets beyond the solar system

05 April 2011

Two undergraduate students from Cardiff University have made the first detection with a Welsh telescope of planets outside of our Solar System, known as extra-solar planets, or exoplanets for short.

Chris Fuller and Jon Rees, two third-year students studying astrophysics at Cardiff University's School of Physics and Astronomy, used the University's Observatory 0.4-metre telescope, on the roof of the Physics Building in Cardiff city centre, to detect the exoplanets.

Exoplanets are very difficult to see directly because their parent stars are so bright. They are so far away that the light from the star and the planet merge together. However, when the planet passes in front of its parent star, the star appears to dim slightly, and the dimming allows scientists to infer the presence of a planet and calculate its size. However, the effect is very difficult to detect. It is like trying to see a fly pass in front of a light bulb from several miles away.

The planets that the Cardiff students have observed are known as WASP-12 and HAT-P-20. They are of similar size to Jupiter but in much closer orbits around their parent stars. Each has a temperature of approximately 10,000 degrees Centigrade. They must therefore be extremely inhospitable to any known form of life. WASP-12 is 475 light-years from Earth, while HAT-P-20 is 230 light-years away.

Commenting on their discovery, Chris Fuller said "I was amazed that we could detect distant planets orbiting other stars from a telescope in the middle of Cardiff." Jon Rees added: "It is remarkable to be able to see distant worlds and work out what conditions must be like there."

The work was carried out as part of the students' regular undergraduate project work. Their project supervisor, Professor Derek Ward-Thompson, said: "It is excellent to see the students having the opportunity to carry out research level work as part of their undergraduate projects".

Head of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, Professor Walter Gear, said "This is yet another example of the buoyant state of Physics at Cardiff University."

Earlier this week Cardiff University announced an increase in numbers in Physics. From October 2011 there will be four new academic lecturing staff members and 35 extra undergraduate student places in Physics.

Professor Gear added: "The University has shown great support for Physics by giving us the additional staff members and increased undergraduate numbers. The future of Physics in Cardiff is looking very bright".

Dr Carole Tucker, admissions tutor for Physics and Astronomy, said "We had a 50% increase in student applications this year. It is good that the University has responded by supporting these extra places."


Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.

For further information, contact:

Ms Nicola Hunt
Admissions and Outreach Administrator
School of Physics and Astronomy
Cardiff University
Tel: 029 2087 6457
Fax: 029 2087 4056

Dr Carole Tucker
Admissions Officer
School of Physics and Astronomy
Tel: 029 2087 4144
Fax: 029 2087 4056

Professor Derek Ward-Thompson
Director of Learning and Teaching
School of Physics and Astronomy
Tel: 029 2087 6468
Fax: 029 2087 4056