This week in space – 20th – 26th February 2012

In the almost endless cycle of new extra-solar planetary systems being discovered, this weeks discovery may lead scientists to re-appraise their theories of planetary formation.

The exoctically named GJ 1214b lies ‘just’ 40 light years from our solar system, orbiting a cool red dwarf star. The planet is said to be around 3 times the Earth’s diameter, but analysis by the Hubble space Telescope suggests a large percentage of its weight is water.

Added to the fact the planet orbits its parent star at a distance of only 2 million kilometeres, this makes GJ 1214b a VERY strange place indeed.

Questions scientists are asking include:

– How can water still be on the planet?
– Why was the planet not incinerated when the parent star turned into a red giant
– What form does water exist on a planet where temperatures reach in excess of 200 degrees centigrade?

I personally am looking forward to the answers.


On Friday 17th China launched another of its Beidou-2 navigation satellites. Launched from the Xichang space base in southwest China’s Sichuan province, the Long March 3C rocket lifted off at 16:12 GMT/UTC.

China Beidou launch
China Beidou launch

Beidou-2, which this satellite launch formed part, is the Chinese equivalent of the US global positioning system (GPS) system. It is hoped that by the time the system is fully operational, in around 2020, it will consist of around 35 satellites. Currently there are 11 satellites in the fleet.

Also on Friday, the MUOS satellite was lauched from launch complex 41 Cape Canaveral Air force Base. The Atlas V carrying the first MUOS (Mobile User Objective system) satellite for the American Navy lifted off at 22:15 GMT/UTC after a week of weather related delays.

Launch of Atlas V MUOS
Launch of Atlas V MUOS satellite

MUOS is a narrowband satellite system that will provide the US military and its allies simultaneous voice, video and data capability by using advanced 3G mobile communications technology. Available 24/7,it greatly enhances the current capability by more than 10 times.

The complete MUOS system, once fully deployed, in around 2015, will be a four satellite system, with an in-orbit spare.

ESA contract signed

On Febraury 24th The European Space Agency (ESA), signed the biggest satellite construction contract in its history, a $1.8 billion, six-satellite deal with Thales Alenia Space to provide meteorological services from geostationary orbit for 20 years starting in 2017.

The first two satellites will be launched in 2017 and 2019, and will offer an all new infrared sounding capability and imaging of global lightning that will provide early warning of severe storms.

In a typically European decision, that was almost derailed by wranglings between Germany and France, many European Aerospace companies will see parts of the satellite contracts come to their countries.

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