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By Case Rijsdijk In astronomy there are three fundamental questions, namely; Where have we come from, Where are we going and Are we alone? The first two have been looked at for hundreds of years, but it is only recently that the third question has leapt into prominence; through the efforts of the late Prof Carl Sagan and SETI; the Search Extraterrestrial Intelligence. If you are looking for “life” elsewhere, you need to find a place where there could be “life”, in other words, another planet. It is now generally accepted that there probably are no other life forms in our Solar System, which means we need to find planets orbiting other nearby stars (suns), and these are called “extrasolar planets” or simply “exoplanets”. Leaders in the search for exoplanets are the NASA Kepler Mission, which has discovered over 5 000 of these, as well as several Earth based surveys, like the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets, SuperWASP; one located at the SAAO in Sutherland the other in the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in Spain – aptly named SuperWASP South and North respectively! [Insert image of SuperWASP South here. Caption: SuperWASP South in Sutherland consists of 8 “off-the-shelf” wide angle lenses connected to highly sensitive CCD chips on a sturdy and accurately aligned mounting] Finding these exoplanets is an exciting exercise, but how does one describe what’s been discovered? The easiest way is to compare the new discovery is with something that is known, like Earth, Jupiter or other, now well-known, Solar System planets; so names like super- Earths, super-Saturns and giant-Jupiters and so on are used. Generally speaking, the size, mass and orbital period (year) come in a wide range that is distributed fairly evenly, and so the evolutionary process as to how these different exoplanets form is becoming steadily clearer and better understood. But what made the discovery of the latest three SuperWASP exoplanets so exciting, was that one was “out-of-step” so to speak. Two of the exoplanets are "hot Saturns" - - large but low-density gas giants that are very close to their stars. The larger of the two, WASP-153b, has a radius 1.86 times that of Saturn and is 1.3 times as dense. The smaller hot Saturn, WASP-151b, is 1.36 times larger than Saturn and is 1.03 times as dense. Both of them have orbital periods of less than a week. But this third find is the exciting one to astronomers; it is a "super-Neptune". Exciting because it is only the ninth super-Neptune ever found amongst the thousands of other exoplanets! It is a planet appreciably bigger than Neptune (2.5 times more massive in this case) but smaller than Saturn, which is about five times more massive than Neptune and only needs 3.83 days to complete the orbit around its star. The dearth of exoplanets in this range has led to the so-called "Neptunian Desert". It is anticipated that the discovery of these three new exoplanets might provide some clues to explain the Neptunian Desert; but the journey has started!

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