Publication: Daily Express
How eBay helped planet search
British planet-hunters have found three new worlds outside the solar system - and they did it with a bit of help from eBay.
The major discoveries of planets the size of Jupiter were made using the team's robotic observatories in the Canary Islands and South Africa.
But amazingly, they had to turn to the internet auction site to source vital equipment needed to carry out their cosmic search.
Each observatory is fitted with a bank of 16 powerful cameras to form a £30,000 instrument called Wasp - the Wide Area Search for Planets - which produces high-resolution pictures of the sky.
The £2 million project uses computers to watch millions of stars a night for tiny fades in their starlight that reveal any distant planets passing in front of them.
The Wasp lenses need to be of such high quality that they cost £4,000 each. But to their horror, the team assembling the equipment discovered that they were 13 lenses short and camera giant Canon had stopped making them.
Dr Carole Haswell, an astronomer at the Open University in Milton Keynes, hit on the idea of the idea of trying to find them online.
She said: "I was a complete novice on eBay when I first used it to buy the lenses so it was a bit nerve-wracking, especially as our purchasing dept were less than thrilled about the whole idea.
"The OU was the only university prepared to even countenance the plan!"
The Wasp team set up their own account on eBay and, to their great relief, managed to track down the vital telephoto lenses from a dealer in South Korea.
One of the new planets, dubbed WASP-3, was found with the team's observatory on La Palma in the Canaries. The others, labelled WASP-4 and WASP-5, were detected from South Africa and are the brightest planets around other stars found in the southern hemisphere.
The UK team have previously discovered two other planets outside the solar system. More than 200 of these so-called exoplanets have been spotted by astronomers around the world.
Wasp scientist Professor Andrew Cameron, of St Andrews University, Scotland, said: "All three planets are similar to Jupiter, but are orbiting their stars so closely that their 'year' lasts less than two days. These are among the shortest orbital periods yet discovered."
The new planets are so close to their stars that temperatures must be too hot for life as we know it to exist. But experts say their discovery boosts the chances that there are also many Earth-sized planets waiting to be discovered as technology improves.
By monitoring the change in light as a planet passes in front of its parent star, astronomers can tell a lot about it.
Dr Coel Hellier, of Keele University, said: "When we see a transit we can deduce the size and mass of the planet and also what it is made of, so we can use these planets to study how solar systems form."