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News Briefs II

Planet Hunters Spy Double Stars

The Washington Post

In the movie "Star Wars," Luke Skywalker comes from a planet with two suns. In real life, this possibility has intrigued astronomers for years. Can planets form around double stars?

The question is important for planet hunters, because more than half the sunlike stars in the galaxy appear to have one or more companions. In the March 6 issue of Nature, researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and the University of Hawaii report they have an optical image of what appears to be a dust disk - an environment where planets might form - around a two-star system known as BD31643.

Only one other telltale dust disk has been imaged around any star. In 1984, astronomers detected a disk extending almost 100 billion miles out from the nearby bright star Beta Pictoris. Later studies showed an empty region near the star where planets may have formed and evidence of comets farther out.

The stars in the latest disk image are each more massive than Beta Pic (five times the mass of the sun, compared with 1.5) and probably younger. The putative disk is at least 100 times as massive as the Beta Pic disk. "If the existence of this dust disk is confirmed it would imply that binary stars may possess stable environments for planetesimal formation," the scientists write.

In an accompanying commentary, however, another scientist expressed skepticism that planets could form there.

Congressmen Hope Not to Give Retired Feds a Break on COLAs

The Washington Post

The Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee have rejected a White House plan to delay inflation catchups for federal retirees for the next five years. That doesn't mean it won't happen. But it increases the odds that if the COLA bullet is bitten, retired feds won't be the only group with tooth-marks on their hides.

The President's budget calls for delaying cost-of-living adjustments - which are due each January - until April from 1998 through the year 2002. But that would only impact retired federal workers, not people getting Social Security or military retirement benefits.

COLAs in recent years have run in the neighborhood of 3 percent, and inflation currently is low. That means those who would be affected by the change can do the rough math (don't think they haven't!) to see what such a delay would cost them.

Senators Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and John Glenn, D-Ohio, say the plan is unfair because it would apply only to retired feds. Bigger savings would come from extending the delay to Social Security checks (which go to one in every seven Americans) and military retired benefits. Both would continue to get January COLAs under the Clinton plan. Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M. This is not the standard cover-your-political-hide letter to sooth constituents. Thompson runs the committee that will decide how Senate-ordered civil service budgets are made. Glenn, who has a track record of being fair but not fawning to feds, isn't running for re-election and is standing up to the White House. Domenici is a GOP favorite of feds and retirees.