Saturday, December 16, 2017
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BEIJING – Britain pledged pound sterling2 billion on Monday for a nuclear plant set to be built in England by a consortium, including Chinese firms, which would be the country’s first such new power station in decades.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced the funding during a visit to China, saying the Hinkley Point plant was necessary to meet Britain’s energy needs as older coal and nuclear plants are retired.

A consortium led by French energy company EDF is expected to make a final decision this year on whether to invest in the plant, but the firm’s chief executive welcomed the funding pledge.

“The Chancellor’s approval of the infrastructure guarantee is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment to Hinkley Point C,” Vincent de Rivas was quoted as saying in a statement from the British Treasury.

EDF is the lead contractor in the consortium, which also includes state-run Chinese firms China General Nuclear Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation.

The Chinese companies are expected to largely finance and get a stake of around 40 percent in the project, which will have two new reactors that authorities hope will generate seven percent of Britain’s electricity.

The announcement came during a five-day trip by Osborne during which he is pushing for closer trade ties with the world’s second-largest economy, even as global concerns deepen about its health.

“We very much welcome Chinese investment not just in that project but the potential for majority Chinese investment in future nuclear projects in the United Kingdom,” he told reporters.

The final decision on investment in the plant could come during a visit to Britain by Chinese President Xi Jinping next month.

The Austrian government has filed a legal complaint to the European Court of Justice against state subsidies for the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, on the grounds they distort the market.

Seen as a major boost to the nuclear industry four years after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant, some environmentalists see Hinkley Point as an unnecessary support for nuclear energy just as renewable energy technologies begin to take hold.

WASHINGTON – Two American women will on Friday become the first female soldiers to graduate from the elite and hugely demanding Ranger School, the US Army announced.

“Congratulations to all of our new Rangers. Each Ranger School graduate has shown the physical and mental toughness to successfully lead organizations at any level.

“This course has proven that every soldier, regardless of gender, can achieve his or her full potential,” Secretary of the Army John McHugh said Monday.

“We owe soldiers the opportunity to serve successfully in any position where they are qualified and capable, and we continue to look for ways to select, train, and retain the best soldiers to meet our nation’s needs,” he added.

Nineteen women began the rigorous training program in April but 17 were eliminated.

The Ranger School welcomed women for the first time this year, following President Barack Obama’s 2013 request that the Pentagon order all branches of the armed forces to open up ground combat jobs to women by 2016.

Women make up about 15 percent of army personnel.

Ranger School is an elite training program reserved for the most physically fit in the US Army, who feed into the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite special operations force.

The progress of the two women has been closely monitored by the military community, where women in combat is still a divisive issue.

PARIS – A comet streaking through space with a European robot lab riding piggyback will skirt the Sun this week, setting another landmark in an extraordinary quest to unravel the origins of life on Earth.

Scientists hope the heat of perihelion — when the comet comes closest to the Sun in its orbit — will cause the enigmatic traveller to shed more of its icy crust.

If so, it could spew out pristine particles left from the Solar System’s birth 4.6 billion years ago, they believe.

And if Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko undergoes this dramatic change, Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft will be orbiting nearby, ready to pounce on any clues of how our star system came into being.

“This is the time most of the action happens,” said European Space Agency (ESA) expert Mark McCaughrean of the weeks-long peak of comet activity.

The ancient celestial voyager will reach its closest point to our star — some 186 million kilometres (116 million miles) — at about 0200 GMT on Thursday, before embarking on another 6.5-year egg-shaped orbit.

Things have been heating up for weeks, with gas and dust blasting off the comet’s surface as solar heat transforms its frozen crust into a space tempest.

This is “the greatest opportunity to catch material and analyse it if you’re looking for rare species of molecules,” especially organic ones, McCaughrean told AFP.

“We want to look at the more pristine material that might come out” from beneath the layer of icy dust stripped from the surface.

Most exciting would be if the duck-shaped comet’s “neck” — which hosts a 500-metre (1,640-foot) crack — were to break in two to reveal the raw insides.

“That’s really the Holy Grail… to see the interior of the comet,” said McCaughrean, though most scientists believe a breakup is unlikely this time around.

– Compromise: Safety vs science –

In any scenario, ground teams working on the 20-year-old Rosetta mission will likely have to wait weeks, if not months, to analyse new data.

For one thing, there has been no word from Philae, their eyes on the ground, since July 9, and its status is unknown.

Right now, 67P with its precious cargo is hurtling through space at 34.17 km per second.

Rosetta has had to move farther away to avoid the confounding effects of the dust storm on its star-tracking navigation system.

The spacecraft now orbits at some 200-300 km from the comet, compared to less than 10 km at its closest in October last year.

“If we were right next to it, bathing in the material, they (scientists) would be super happy,” said McCaughrean — but with a high risk of losing Rosetta.

“You have to do a compromise between spacecraft safety and getting as close as possible,” added Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec of German space agency DLR.

Rosetta’s instruments can still catch particles, but these are less sensitive than Philae’s.

Once the most violent outgassing is over, Rosetta will move closer again and seek to re-establish contact with Philae, hoping that somehow the little lab has been going about its scientific business all along.

But even if Philae has gone permanently silent, scientists can learn a lot from before-and-after images, gas samples and other measurements taken by Rosetta itself.

– Water mystery –

Some experts believe comets smashed into our infant planet, providing it with precious water and the chemical building blocks for life.

The Rosetta mission has already shown that at least as far as water is concerned, this is not the complete picture.

Water on 67P is of a slightly different chemical composition — a different “flavour” than Earth’s.

Rosetta deposited washing machine-sized Philae on the comet on November 12 last year after a 10-year, seven-billion-kilometre trek.

The landing was rough, and the robot tumbled into a ditch shadowed from the Sun’s battery-recharging rays. After three days of comet sniffing and prodding, its onboard power ran out, and Philae went into hibernation on November 15.

But as 67P drew closer to the Sun, it recharged and woke up on June 13, only to fall silent again less than a month later.

Just in case it is awake, ground controllers have sent “blind commands” for the lab to activate a few basic experiments during the perihelion period.

BAIKONUR (KAZAKHSTAN) – Astronauts from Russia, Japan and the United States Thursday docked successfully with the International Space Station under six hours after they launched, NASA television showed.

The Soyuz TMA 17M rocket — carrying cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, US astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui of Japan — had roared skyward from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in the barren Kazakh steppe at 2102 GMT.

After a fly-around at around 350 meters (1,150 feet), the rocket manuevered to a rendezvous with the ISS, at 10:46 EST (0246 GMT Thursday).

“We have contact,” a NASA announcer said, as the craft soared high above the coast of Ecuador, 402 kilometres (250 miles) over the Pacific.

One solar array — a type of power supply that captures energy from the sun — did not deploy on time, but this did not affect the rocket’s flight as the others were still operating, the US space agency said.

Scientists and space enthusiasts around the world were watching the launch closely, and with some concern, since the mission had been delayed by two months because of a Russian rocket failure.

Russia was in May forced to put all space travel on hold after the unmanned Progress freighter taking cargo to the ISS crashed back to Earth in late April.

The doomed ship lost contact with Earth and burned up in the atmosphere. The failure, which Russia has blamed on a problem in a Soyuz rocket, also forced a group of astronauts to spend an extra month aboard the ISS.

A workhorse of space that dates back to the Cold War, the Soyuz is used for manned and unmanned flights.

Ahead of the liftoff, the three men met with 81-year-old cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space and one of the Apollo-Soyuz commanders.

Sending the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first sputnik satellite four years earlier are among key accomplishments of the Russian space program and remain a major source of national pride in the country.

But over the past few years, Russia has suffered several major setbacks, notably losing expensive satellites and unmanned supply ships to the ISS.

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