News & Current Affairs

September 19, 2008

Europe plans asteroid sample grab

Europe plans asteroid sample grab

British scientists and engineers are working on a potential new mission to bring back material from an asteroid.

The European Space Agency (Esa) mission, which could launch in the next decade, would be designed to learn more about how our Solar System evolved.

The plan is to select a small asteroid – less than 1km across – near Earth and send a spacecraft there to drill for dust and rubble for analysis.

Mission plans are being worked on at EADS Astrium, in Stevenage, Herts.

A final decision on whether to approve the mission – known as Marco Polo – will be made in a few years’ time. The mission would launch towards the end of the next decade.

Asteroids are debris left over from the formation of the Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago.

Studying their pristine material should provide new insights into the ingredients of the early Solar System and how planets like Earth evolved.

“We’ll be looking at the best solution for getting there and back,” Astrium’s Dr Ralph Cordey told News.

“We’ve got to look at all elements of the mission – how we would design the mission, how to design the trajectory to one of a number of possible asteroids, how to optimize that so we use the smallest spacecraft, the least fuel and the smallest rocket.”

Marco Polo (EADS Astrium)

Marco Polo would map the asteroid as well as grabbing a sample

Esa has an exploration roadmap for the missions it wishes to conduct in the coming years.

One of its major goals is a Mars sample return mission – a mission to bring back pieces of Martian rock for study in Earth laboratories, where the full panoply of modern analytical technologies can be deployed.

An asteroid sample return mission would have huge scientific merit in its own right but it would also help develop the technology needed for the more challenging task of getting down and up from a large planetary body that has a much bigger gravitational pull.

Not that getting down on to a small, low-gravity body is easy. The wrong approach could crush landing legs or even result in the vehicle bouncing straight back off into space.

Such problems were amply demonstrated by the recent Japanese attempts to grab samples off the surface of an asteroid.

It is still not clear whether the Hayabusa spacecraft managed to capture any material and the probe’s return to Earth is still haunted by uncertainty.

The Americans landed on an asteroid with their Near-Shoemaker probe in 2001.

They have also sent the Dawn spacecraft to rendezvous with Asteroid Vesta in 2011 before going on to visit Asteroid Ceres in 2015.

There is even feasibility work going on in the US space agency to look at how astronauts could be sent on an asteroid mission one day.

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August 15, 2008

British protester held in Beijing

British protester held in Beijing

The Free Tibet banner

The banner was unfurled on a building next to an Olympic promotion

A British man has been held by police in China after unfurling a pro-Tibet banner on a building in Beijing.

Philip Kirk, 24, of St Albans, Herts, and Australian-Canadian Nicole Rycroft, 41, scaled the Central Television building to make their protest.

The pair, from the group Students for a Free Tibet, and three other supporting protesters were detained on Friday.

Han Shan, spokesman for the campaign group, said the banner read “Free Tibet” in English and Chinese.

Kate Woznow, also from the group, said the protest happened at the headquarters of the state-owned China Central Television building in east Beijing.

She said Mr Kirk and Ms Rycroft were detained after climbing up part of the building to reveal the banner.

Previous protests

Last week, two other British pro-Tibet protesters, Lucy Fairbrother, 23, from Cambridge, and Iain Thom, 24, from Edinburgh, were deported after scaling a 120ft-high (36.5m) lighting pole and unfurling banners reading “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet” and “Tibet will be free”.

The activists said the action had been worth it – but their job was not done and there would be more protests during the games.

We are in touch with the Chinese authorities and we are seeking further details
British embassy spokesman

Eight demonstrators from Students for a Free Tibet were also detained on Wednesday after staging a demonstration.

Wang Wenjie, of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, said he did not have any information about the latest protest.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Beijing said: “We are in touch with the Chinese authorities and we are seeking further details.”

Officials expect Mr Kirk to be deported some time on Friday.

Meanwhile, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, warned activists on Wednesday to obey the law in China, which does not allow unauthorized protests.

He said: “No matter Chinese citizens or foreigners, in China if you want to have processions or demonstrations, you should abide by Chinese laws and regulations.”

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