Discovery of exoplanets and the characterisation of their atmospheres
Our group has a leading international position in the discovery of the exoplanets by the transit method. When planets in edge-on orbits eclipse part of their parent stars we can both detect their presence and infer the radius of the planet and hence its density. This is the key measurement required to determine the bulk density of an exoplanet and separate out gas giants from ice giants, terrestrial planets and even more exotic objects such as ocean planets. For the past decade we have played a leading role in the SuperWASP project that has now found over one hundred transiting exoplanets, mainly hot Jupiters and Saturns. Our sample of bright systems has formed the bedrock of the modern understanding of gas giant structure, composition and dynamical evolution. Our planets are also some of the most favourable for planetary atmospheres studies and we are actively pursuing an ambitious programme of atmospheric characterisation with a wide range of space- and ground-based telecopies (including HST, Spitzer, XMM-Newton, ESO telescopes in Chile and UK telescopes in the Canary Islands).
Following on from the success of the SuperWASP project we are now working hard on a new ground-based exopanet survey: the Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS). We have recently started construction of the NGTS facility at the site of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile (see the figure below). Our aim is to improve dramatically on the photometric precision of the SuperWASP survey and thereby discover planets in the Neptune and super-Earth size ranges. We will survey more than twenty times the sky area covered by Kepler and will therefore find smaller planets around brighter stars than was possible with Kepler.
There are several opportunities for PhD students to get involved in planet discovery with the NGTS survey and to study exoplanetary atmospheres with some of the world's largest and most sophisticated telescopes. For more information please contact us directly. Supervisor: Peter Wheatley