News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

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July 5, 2009

NFL star McNair found shot dead

Filed under: Latest, Sports News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:14 am

NFL star McNair found shot dead

Steve McNair playing for the Titans in January 2000

McNair led the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl

Recently retired American football star Steve “Air” McNair has been found dead with multiple gunshot wounds in Nashville, along with a dead woman.

“Air” McNair, who played 13 years with the National Football League and was a quarterback for the Tennessee Titans, retired last year.

A pistol was found near the dead woman, aged 20, who had received a single shot to head, police said.

The bodies were found in a flat used by the former footballer, who was 36.

First reports said McNair had suffered a gunshot wound to the head but police quoted by the Associated Press said later that he had been “shot multiple times”.

Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron identified the woman as Sahel Kazemi, whom he called a “friend” of McNair’s.

The footballer’s wife, Mechelle, was “very distraught” and police do not believe she was involved, the spokesman added.

‘One of the finest’

McNair led the Titans within a yard of forcing overtime in the 2000 Super Bowl, which they lost 23-16 to the St Louis Rams.

He was one of the finest players to play for our organisation and one of the most beloved players by our fans
Bud Adams
Titans owner

He also played for the Baltimore Ravens before retiring in April 2008 after injuries.

“We don’t know the details, but it is a terrible tragedy and our hearts go out to the families involved,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

Titans owner Bud Adams was “saddened and shocked” by news of McNair’s death.

“He was one of the finest players to play for our organisation and one of the most beloved players by our fans,” he said.

“He played with unquestioned heart and leadership and led us to places that we had never reached, including our only Super Bowl.”

December 30, 2008

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Israel’s air assault on Gaza is “the first in several stages” of operations aimed at ending militant rocket fire, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

As bombing continued for a fourth day, another top official said Israel was ready for “long weeks of action”.

Palestinian officials say more than 360 people have been killed since Saturday. Four Israelis have died in rocket fire.

As EU officials prepared to discuss the crisis, some reports from Israel said it was considering a temporary truce.

Mr Olmert was set to discuss the idea of a 48-hour suspension, suggested by France, with his officials later in the day, the French news agency AFP said.

But Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a truce would allow militant group Hamas – which controls Gaza – “to regain strength… and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel”.

US President Bush agreed in a telephone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that for any ceasefire to be effective it had to respected by Hamas, the White House said.

A BBC reporter says Israeli tanks and troops are massed along Gaza’s border.

Correspondents say this could be a prelude to ground operations, but could also be intended to build pressure on Hamas.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the crisis in Paris.

‘Defenseless population’

On Tuesday, Israeli jets attacked more targets linked to Hamas, hitting a number of government buildings and security installations.

At least 10 people were killed and 40 said to have been wounded in the raids.

One air strike killed two sisters, the eldest aged 11, riding in a donkey cart in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, Palestinian medical sources said.

Palestinian children search the ruins of a destroyed house following an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip, 29 December 2008

The UN has called for an investigation into the attacks, which are causing heavy civilian casualties. It says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far were women and children.

Richard Falk – the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories – said the international community must put more pressure on Israel to end its assault.

“Israel is committing a shocking series of atrocities by using modern weaponry against a defenceless population – attacking a population that has been enduring a severe blockade for many months,” Mr Falk said in a BBC interview.

But Israeli officials said there was more to come.

The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action”, deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Olmert’s statement that the bombardment was “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet” was quoted from a briefing he gave to President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.

Separately, Israeli naval vessels confronted pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break the Gaza blockade by boat. The activists said one vessel rammed them; their boat made port in Lebanon with heavy damage on one side.

Rocket fire

The Egyptian-Gaza border was due to be opened to permit more trucks carrying aid to enter the territory, and for wounded Palestinians to be transported to Egyptian hospitals.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, under popular pressure to open the crossing fully, said that could not happen while Hamas, rather than the Palestinian Authority, led by its rival Fatah, controlled the border.

Demonstrators in Yemen, angered by Egypt’s co-operation with the blockade on Gaza, briefly stormed the country’s consulate in Aden, where they burned an Egyptian flag and hoisted a Palestinian one.

There have been angry protests against the Israeli offensive in many other cities across the Arab world and in several European capitals.

Hamas has pressed on with rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier in areas that have not previously suffered such fatalities.

Israeli military officials said rocket attacks landing more than 25 miles (40km) from Gaza put nearly 10% of Israel’s population of seven million within range.

Israeli political leaders have been under pressure to act against rocket fire with a general election looming in early February.

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has backed the offensive, telling the BBC that “Israel is using a fraction of its power to try to target surgically the terrorists”.

The strikes began less than a week after the expiry of a six-month-long ceasefire deal with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Correspondents say short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, it is unlikely Israel will be able to prevent rocket fire permanently.

Israel dismantled its strategic settlements and military bases in Gaza in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of the narrow coastal strip and its airspace.

GAZA VIOLENCE 27-30 DECEMBER
Map of attacks in and around Gaza

1. Ashdod: First attack so far north, Sunday. Woman killed in second rocket attack, Tuesday
2. Ashkelon: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Monday
3. Sderot: rocket attacks
4. Nevitot: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Saturday
5. Civilian family reported killed in attack on Yabna refugee camp, Sunday
6.
Israeli warplanes strike tunnels under Gaza/Egypt border, Sunday
7. Three brothers reported killed in attack on Rafah, Sunday
8. Khan Younis: Four members of Islamic Jihad and a child reported killed, Sunday. Security officer killed in air strike on Hamas police station, Tuesday
9. Deir al-Balah: Palestinians injured, houses and buildings destroyed, Sunday
10. Tel al-Hawa – Interior ministry and Islamic University badly damaged, Monday. At least three buildings in ministry compound hit, Tuesday
11. Gaza City port: naval vessels targeted, Sunday
12. Shati refugee camp: Home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya targeted, Monday
13. Intelligence building attacked, Sunday
14. Jebaliya refugee camp: several people killed in attack on mosque, Sunday 15. Beit Hanoun – two girls killed in air strike, Tuesday
16. Israeli soldier killed at unspecified military base near Nahal Oz border crossing – five other soldiers wounded in same rocket attack, Monday night.

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Dragon capsule (SpaceX)

The Dragon capsule is designed to carry cargo or crew

Cut off in the seclusion of space, crew members living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) depend on regular deliveries of air, water, food and fuel for their survival.

But when the ageing space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, the US space agency (Nasa) will lose a principal means of ferrying crew and cargo to the ISS.

The shuttle’s replacement – Ares-Orion – will not enter service until 2015 at the earliest.

And in April, Nasa told legislators it would stop asking for Congressional permission to buy cargo space on Russian Progress re-supply vehicles after 2011.

I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two
Antonio Elias, executive VP, Orbital

That leaves the US dependent on European and Japanese spacecraft for delivering supplies to the space station.

But Nasa has also been pursuing a commercial approach.

Three years ago, the space agency took the unprecedented step of fostering the development of private spacecraft designed to carry crew and cargo to the ISS.

It offered $500m (£340m) in “seed money” to help stimulate a competitive market for supply flights to the space station.

This month, Nasa awarded two companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – with lucrative contracts to provide cargo delivery flights to the ISS up to 2016.

Nasa’s administrator Michael Griffin said he hoped the commercial ventures would succeed. But he told BBC News recently: “It’s not commercial if Nasa is sitting around telling them what to do and how to do it. I don’t think they need that.”

Elon Musk, the South Africa-born entrepreneur who co-founded SpaceX, says: “Even when [Ares-Orion] does come online, it’s sort of overkill to use it for servicing the space station. It would be incredibly expensive. So Nasa looked to the private sector to solve its problem.”

Mr Musk made a fortune from the sale of his internet payment service PayPal to eBay and has invested at least $100m (£68m) of his own money in SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California.

The company’s cargo re-supply plans are based around a rocket called Falcon 9. The standard version of the Falcon 9 is arguably a medium-lift launcher, says Mr Musk, designed to place 9,900kg into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Assembly of the first Falcon 9 at SpaceX’s new launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, should be complete by 31 December 2008.

“To external appearances, it looks like something from the Apollo programme, or Gemini, or Soyuz. But the materials are much more advanced, it’s designed to be reusable – which is an important characteristic,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

Inflatable hotel

Falcon 9 is the intended launch vehicle for a capsule, called Dragon, measuring some three and a half metres (12ft) in diameter. Dragon is designed to carry more than 2,500kg of cargo, or a crew of up to seven, into LEO.

DRAGON CAPSULE
Infographic (BBC/SpaceX)
Pressurised capacity of 2,500kg or 14 cubic metres
Crewed version will carry up to seven astronauts
Highly heat resistant material protects craft on re-entry
Designed for water landing with parachute

It is capable of carrying both pressurised items – those that need to be kept at Earth pressure and are to be used inside the space station – and unpressurised cargo – to be used outside the ISS, such as control moment gyros.

“The Falcon 9-Dragon system is intended to replace the function of the space shuttle when that retires in 2010,” says Elon Musk.

Falcon 9 will place Dragon in an initial parking orbit. From there it will manoeuvre towards the ISS. Dragon will make a slow approach and, once in range, will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm and berthed.

During the high speed return to Earth, Dragon will be protected by a heat shield made of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA). This highly heat-resistant material is barely scathed at heat fluxes that would vapourise steel.

The capsule will parachute down to the sea for recovery.

Safety is of paramount consideration: the manned version will have an escape tower to rescue the crew if something goes wrong – a feature absent from the space shuttle.”

“Hopefully we’ll do the first demonstration flight next year of the Falcon 9-Dragon system, then particular demonstrations in 2010 and start doing operation missions possibly by the end of 2010,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

PICA heatshield (SpaceX)

A heatshield made of PICA protects Dragon during re-entry

First of all, Dragon will carry astronauts from Nasa and from other space agencies to the ISS. But Mr Musk hopes also to transport space tourists to private orbiting stations.

One company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to assemble an orbiting “space hotel” based on a series of inflatable modules.

“We have also thought of perhaps carrying private space adventurers on a loop around the Moon,” says Mr Musk, adding that this would probably cost on the order of $40m-$50m per person.

“I think there is a wide range of applications. Perhaps the Falcon 9-Dragon system will ultimately evolve into something that will take people to Mars.”

‘Big empty can’

The other winning bid in Nasa’s cargo re-supply contract was made by Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Dulles, Virginia.

Orbital’s vehicle consists of a medium-lift rocket called Taurus 2 which will be used to launch the Cygnus capsule. Unlike Dragon, Cygnus will only carry cargo – not astronauts.

CYGNUS CAPSULE
Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Pressurised capacity of 2,000kg, or 18.7 cubic metres
Service module contains propulsion, power and avionics
Accommodates pressurised, unpressurised and cargo return modules
Space station robotic arm used to berth capsule

Launching from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the medium-lift rocket will be able to ferry 5,500kg into LEO. Orbital is due to carry out a demonstration flight in the fourth quarter of 2010.”We took a bunch of existing parts but combined them in a way that is very, very efficient,” says Dr Antonio Elias, Orbital’s executive vide-president, who is overseeing the development of the new system.

Cygnus is based around a common service module, containing the vehicle’s propulsion, power systems and avionics. To this common module is added one of three types of specialised cargo modules – each designed for different mission scenarios.

One of these specialised modules will carry pressurised cargo, another will transfer unpressurised cargo, and a third type of module will return cargo items from the space station to Earth.

“The one that will be used the most, I believe, is the pressurised cargo module,” Orbital’s executive vice president told BBC News.

Dr Elias describes this module as a “big empty can”. It is “volumetrically efficient and light” because, says Dr Elias, “all it has to do is bring cargo up”.

The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done
John Pike, GlobalSecurity.org

“It gets attached to the station, the hatch opens and crew empty the pressurised ‘can’ of its contents. They fill it up with trash, close the hatch. The service module backs it out of position and de-orbits it over the Pacific Ocean. Both can and service module then perish in a fiery ball of plasma,” Dr Elias told BBC News.

The unpressurised module is less efficient because some complex, heavy mechanisms are required to attach cargo: “The boxes you carry have to be very far apart because the (ISS robotic arm) has to come around and handle them. You have to give it lots of clearance,” says Dr Elias.

The efficiency of the cargo return module, he says, is relatively low because of the shielding, parachutes and other paraphernalia required. He expected only a fraction of re-supply flights would require the use of this module.

Orbital says this approach of using specialised modules keeps development costs low.

Rocket origin

Dr Elias was chief designer of Orbital’s Pegasus rocket, the first privately developed launch vehicle, which made its maiden flight in 1990.

A few years ago, he says, Orbital came up with an idea to re-supply the space station using Pegasus. But, at the time, the benefits were not clear to either Orbital or Nasa.

In fact, the origins of Orbital’s Taurus 2-Cygnus system can be traced to the demise of the Delta 2 rocket.

For two decades, the Delta 2 had been the US fleet’s most reliable medium-lift launcher for military, scientific and commercial payloads. It is still a perfectly good rocket, but Nasa plans to make its final Delta 2 launch at the end of the decade, shifting more of its medium-lift launch traffic to the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 heavy launch vehicles.

SpaceX HQ (SpaceX)

The SpaceX HQ occupies 50,000 sq m in Hawthorne, California

The US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), though significantly bigger, are expected to be comparable in cost in the long run – if not cheaper – than the Delta 2.

“We became concerned that the US government satellites we were bidding for, winning and building in this class would disappear for lack of a launch vehicle,” Dr Elias explains.

“We were concerned this would favour the larger spacecraft launches on [EELVs] and that the market would go to the big companies, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.”

Orbital began designing a successor to the Delta 2 with its own money. Although the company was on solid financial ground, finding a market to justify the expense was not easy. But a new opportunity was about to present itself.

Market forces

In August 2006, Nasa selected two companies – SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler – to develop and demonstrate orbital re-supply vehicles under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, setting the firms aggressive timelines.

The space agency dropped Rocketplane Kistler a year into the programme; the company reportedly failed to meet a development milestone to Nasa’s satisfaction.

“We decided to make an offering whereby Orbital would provide out of its own funds not only the additional money to develop Taurus 2, but also a space vehicle that would be suitable to provide those services,” said Dr Elias.

Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Cygnus will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm

Orbital filled the void left by the departure of Rocketplane Kistler, winning a Nasa contract under Phase II of COTS.

Each of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital in December is worth a potential $3.1bn (£2.1bn). But the market itself remains very small.

“I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two,” Dr Elias told.

“However, as prudent businessmen, we did not embark on this venture believing we would grab 100% of the demand. So we are willing to be profitable in a situation where we only have half of it.”

Artist's impression of Taurus 2 rocket (Orbital)

Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket uses tried and tested technology

Observers point out that Nasa is betting on vehicles which do not yet exist, an approach which presents a major risk for the space agency.Not only is it relying on two companies to keep supplies coming to the ISS, Nasa hopes the rocket and cargo vehicles can be developed in months – not the years it has usually taken other agency programmes.

“The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done,” John Pike, a space policy analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, told the LA Times.

“All of these things strike me as significant challenges for even the biggest aerospace companies.”

But Nasa is not putting all its eggs in one basket. It can still barter for cargo space aboard the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, or HTV, which is due to enter service in 2009.

Europe also plans to modify the ATV so that it can bring cargo back from the space station, a capability Nasa is eager to have.

Announcing the award of the CRS contract, Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s chief of space operations, said: “This is a pretty monumental thing for us, this is a contract that we really need to keep space station flying and to service space station.”

He added: “I think it’s exciting we’re doing this from the commercial side. We’ve got some good proposals and we’ve chosen the two winners.”

Elon Musk (Getty)

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