CHILE – Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large
Telescope high in the Chilean Andes have found reason to believe that a
star can eat a planet. Examining signals from a star in the Hydra
constellation, some 90 light years away, the scientists discovered a much
higher lithium content than would normally be found in a mature star. Their
explanation is that a giant planet probably twice the size of Jupiter and
likely to be lithium-rich, was swallowed up by the star, which is about the
size of earth’s sun. Elongated orbits of two remaining large planets around
the star corroborate the theory as their distorted path suggests the mutual
effects of large planets, one of whom was carried to close to its star and
paid dearly for it. (Le Figaro, May 11, p13, C.V.)

IN ORBIT – One Franco-American oceanographic satellite deserves another: this
was the conclusion early on in the life of Topex-Poseidon, the
ocean-monitoring satellite that everyone agrees revolutionized scientific
study of the bounding main. Once its capacities to determine exact ocean
level, measure tides down to the centimeter, and collect pluriannual data
on ocean goings-on were manifest, plans were laid for a successor so that
ocean cycles longer than a decade can be detected and studied as well. To
be launched in August, Jason 1 will be able to deduce information all the
way down to a column of seawater: quantity, temperature, salinity, density,
and even the shape of the bottom, since oceans’ surface contours mirror
ocean floors. Five times lighter and three times cheaper, Jason 1 will
inaugurate a chain of constantly improving orbital ocean observers, with
Jason 2 already on the drawing boards and scheduled for launch in 2004. (Le
Monde, May 12, p24, Pierre Barthélémy)

IN SPACE – American necessity just became the mother of French invention, as
the Bush administration has told NASA that what it’s been given to build
the International Space Station is all it’s going to see. Space being a
dangerous place to cut corners to come in under cost, NASA had the bright
idea of letting the Europeans build the Crew Return Vehicle, a very
expensive life raft without which the ISS would never pass inspection.
European space officials are thrilled with this open door to the big
leagues, but whether the offer will be taken up will depend more on policy
than know-how (no lack of space skills in Europe–France’s Dassault
Aviation has been one of the contractors for the existing American return
vehicle prototype). France’s stance on manned space flight as a way to
spend research francs or euros is firmly negative. Others are saying you’d
have to be crazy in the head to pass up this opportunity to master such
strategic skills as atmospheric reentry. Stay tuned. (Le Figaro, May 13,
p11, Frédéric Castel)