Wednesday, April 26, 2017
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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.

New Zealand opposition embroiled in racism row

Posted by pakin On July - 15 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

WELLINGTON – New Zealand’s main opposition Labour Party denied allegations of racism Wednesday after blaming Chinese investors for pushing up prices in Auckland’s red-hot property market.

Amid concerns that houses are becoming unattainable in New Zealand’s largest city, Labour released data over the weekend purporting to show that 40 percent of buyers in Auckland were Chinese.

But critics said the data — based solely on whether the surname of buyers appeared to be Chinese — was “half-baked”, with Housing Minister Nick Smith accusing Labour of “playing the race card”.

Labour’s housing spokesman Phil Twyford, rejected the allegation, saying he was aiming to promote debate on an important issue, not single out Chinese people.

“If they have perceived this as a criticism of them, it isn’t. Our only concern is about offshore Chinese speculators,” he told the New Zealand Herald.

The leader of the centre-left party, Andrew Little, said raising the issue of foreign ownership was difficult but needed to be done.

“(It’s) always going to be a tricky subject to raise, but the data we had told a pretty clear story,” he told commercial radio.

Little said a register of foreign property owners was needed to give New Zealanders an accurate picture of who was buying into the housing market.

“They’re sick and tired of losing homes at auction to higher bidders down the end of a telephone line in another country,” he said.

House prices in Auckland soared 26 percent to an average NZ$755,000 (US$510,000) in the year to June, while prices outside the city were steady and averaged just NZ$340,000.

The Reserve Bank moved to cool the market in May, warning a property bubble posed a significant risk to the entire economy, but demand remains strong.

Auckland has a population of 1.5 million, about a third of the country’s total, and official data shows it is where more than half of migrants to New Zealand settle.

Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy said it was simplistic to claim ethnic Chinese were behind the city’s price rises.

“Dumbing down complex economic woes and blaming them on an ethnic community whose members are already feeling under pressure is neither new nor unique, but it’s always disappointing,” she said.

“Chinese New Zealanders deserve better than this and so does anyone keen on actually solving this issue.”

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected “international dictates” as France’s top diplomat visited, with Paris advocating a UN resolution laying out parameters for peace talks.

With negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians stalled for more than a year, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Netanyahu on Sunday.

The separate meetings in Ramallah and Jerusalem were part of a regional tour by Fabius aimed at reviving peace talks.

France has argued in favour of a UN resolution that would guide negotiations leading to an independent Palestinian state and which could include a timeframe for talks.

Ahead of Fabius’s arrival in Jerusalem, Netanyahu hit out at international diplomatic efforts to impose proposals which he said neglected to address vital Israeli security concerns, saying his government would reject “international dictates”.

In a joint news conference with Fabius after their meeting, Netanyahu said “peace will only come from direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions”.

“It will not come from UN resolutions that are sought to be imposed from the outside,” he said.

Netanyahu said a Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state as well as “iron-clad security arrangements on the ground in which Israel can defend itself” were requirements for peace.

Fabius sought to respond to such concerns, saying negotiations would ultimately be left to the Israelis and Palestinians, but that it did not prevent international support in the process.

“We must both guarantee Israel’s security and at the same time give Palestinians the right to have a state,” Fabius told journalists earlier at a joint news conference with Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki in Ramallah.

Malki welcomed France’s efforts, but said he doubted a deal was possible with the current rightwing Israeli government, which he labelled “extremist”.

In Cairo on Saturday, Fabius warned that continued Israeli settlement building on land the Palestinians want for a future state would damage chances of a final deal.

– Lone-wolf attacks –

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been comatose since a major US push for a final deal ended in failure in April 2014.

Israel says the process failed because the Palestinians refused to accept a US framework document outlining the way forward.

But the Palestinians blame the collapse on Israel’s settlement building and the government’s refusal to release veteran prisoners.

The relationship between the two sides remains severely strained, prompting the Palestinians to boost efforts on the international stage to seek their promised state.

Such efforts have included a push to open criminal proceedings against Israel before the International Criminal Court.

Tensions have been high, and on Sunday a Palestinian stabbed and seriously wounded an Israeli border policeman outside Jerusalem’s Old City, with the officer managing to shoot his attacker, leaving him in critical condition.

It was the latest in a string of so-called lone-wolf attacks by Palestinians.

– After Iran talks? –

The United States has consistently defended Israel before the UN Security Council, and any French resolution must be accepted by Washington to avoid a veto.

President Barack Obama’s administration, however, has signalled that it could be swayed given Netanyahu’s recent comments regarding a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu sparked international concern when he ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state while campaigning for the March 17 general election, though he later backtracked.

France could unilaterally recognise a Palestinian state should the peace process remain moribund, a possibility that could pile further pressure on Israel.

France’s diplomatic efforts come against the backdrop of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, with Israel firmly opposing the deal currently on the table.

Iran and the P5+1 powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — agreed in April on the main outlines of what would be a historic agreement scaling down Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The world powers and Iran set themselves a deadline of June 30 to finalise what would be a highly complex accord.

Some have argued that a window of opportunity may arise after the conclusion of the Iran talks for France to submit a resolution at the United Nations.

They say that Washington would be unlikely to support moves beforehand that could impact negatively on the nuclear negotiations.

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