News & Current Affairs

September 27, 2008

Chinese astronaut walks in space

Chinese astronaut walks in space

A Chinese astronaut has become the first in his country’s history to take a walk in space.

In an operation broadcast live on national TV, fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang emerged from the capsule orbiting the Earth to wave a Chinese flag.

Mr Zhai, 42, stayed outside the capsule for 15 minutes while his two fellow astronauts stayed in the spacecraft.

The exercise is seen as key to China’s ambition to build an orbiting station in the next few years.

Mr Zhai began the manoeuvre just after 1630 Beijing Time (0830 GMT) on Saturday, and completed it about 15 minutes later.

“I’m feeling quite well. I greet the Chinese people and the people of the world,” he said as he climbed out of the Shenzhou VII capsule.

His colleague, Liu Boming, also briefly got his head out of the capsule to hand him the flag.

Mr Zhai wore a Chinese-made spacesuit thought to have cost between £5m and £20m ($10m-$40m) for the space walk.

The “yuhangyuan” (astronaut) was tethered to the capsule with an umbilical cable.

Mr Zhai retrieved an externally mounted experiment.

The third yuhangyuan on the mission is Jing Haipeng.

Leap

The Shenzhou VII capsule soared into orbit on a Long March II-F rocket from Jiuquan spaceport in north-west China on 25 September.

1958: Base for spaceflights built at Jiuquan, in Gobi desert
April 1970: China launches its first satellite into space
1990-2002: Shenzhou I-IV are launched to develop systems
Oct 2003: The first manned space mission launches on Shenzhou V
Oct 2005: The Shenzhou VI mission takes two men into space
Oct 2007: Chang’e-1 orbiter sent on unmanned mission to the Moon

The rocket put the Shenzhou capsule in a near-circular orbit more than 300km above the Earth.

Earlier, Zhang Jianqi, one of the chief engineers for China’s space programme, said keeping three men in the spacecraft, and then sending one outside, would be a “big test”.

“This is a big technological leap,” he told state-run news agency Xinhua.

“The risks are quite high. Sending up three astronauts is a jump both in quantity and quality.”

The ship is to release a 40kg (90lb) satellite which will circle the orbiter and beam back images to mission control.

At the end of the mission, the Shenzhou re-entry capsule will target a landing in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

China became only the third nation after the United States and Russia to independently put a man in space when Yang Liwei, another fighter pilot, went into orbit on the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003.

Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng completed a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.

According to the Associated Press news agency, Xinhua posted an article on its website prior to the lift-off that was written as if Shenzhou VII had already been launched into space.

The article reportedly carried a date of 27 September and came complete with a dialogue between the astronauts.

Chinese media report that this latest mission is the “most critical step” in the country’s “three-step” space programme.

These stages are: sending a human into orbit, docking spacecraft together to form a small laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

The Shenzhou VIII and IX missions are expected to help set up a space laboratory complex in 2010.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.
SHENZHOU VII SPACECRAFT

1. Forward orbital module – crew live and work in this section, which contains scientific equipment. In future missions, this module may remain in orbit as part of a Chinese space station
2. Re-entry capsule – contains seats for three crew
3. Propulsion module – contains spacecraft’s power unit and liquid fuel rocket system
4. Solar panels – spacecraft carries one pair of solar panels
5. Spacewalk – One yuhangyuan (astronaut) exits the orbital module on a tether. Another crew member stands just inside to assist in case of an emergency

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September 17, 2008

Deadly US embassy attack in Yemen

Deadly US embassy attack in Yemen

A car bomb and rocket attack on the US embassy in Yemen has killed at least 16 people, including civilians and Yemeni security guards, Yemen officials said.

The bomb targeted the main security gate as staff were arriving for work.

An exchange of heavy fire followed between embassy security guards and militants, who eyewitnesses said were dressed as policemen.

The White House said the attack was a reminder of continuing threats from “extremists both at home and abroad”.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe added: “We will continue to work with the government of Yemen to increase our counter-terrorism activities to prevent more attacks from taking place.”

Security sources said six members of the Yemeni security forces, six attackers, and four bystanders were killed in the attack, which occurred in the capital, Sanaa, at about 0830 (0530 GMT).

‘Massive fireball’

British citizen Trev Mason described hearing explosions while in his residential compound near the embassy.

We saw… a massive fireball very close to the US embassy
Trev Mason
eyewitness

“We heard the sounds of a heavy gunbattle going on,” he told CNN television.

“I looked out of my window and we saw the first explosion going off, a massive fireball very close to the US embassy.”

The new attack is the second on the embassy in the past six months.

A group calling itself the Islamic Jihad in Yemen said it carried out the attack, and threatened to target other foreign missions in the region unless its jailed members were released.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified.

Earlier this year, the US ordered the evacuation of non-essential personnel from Yemen after mortar bombs were fired towards the embassy. They missed but hit a nearby school.

Map of Yemen

Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, has long been a haven for Islamist militants.

In 2000, 17 US sailors were killed when suicide bombers with alleged links to al-Qaeda blew themselves up on an inflatable raft next to the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.

The government of Yemen, which backs America’s “war on terror”, has often blamed al-Qaeda for attacks on Western targets in the country.

US special forces have been helping the government fight the Islamist militants.

But analysts say there has been only limited success in restraining the militant groups.

Yemen is a desperately poor corner of the Middle East and, like Afghanistan, there is rugged mountainous terrain, with a vast supply of weapons.


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September 8, 2008

China sets dates for space launch

China sets dates for space launch

Shenzhou VI launches in 2005

China has already launched two manned flights

China will launch its third manned space mission in late September, state-run news agency Xinhua reports.

The Shenzhou VII flight will feature China’s first ever space walk, which will be broadcast live with cameras inside and outside the spacecraft.

Three “yuhangyuan” (astronauts) will blast off on a Long-March II-F rocket sometime between 25 and 30 September.

Previous reports in state media had put the launch in October, possibly during the National Day holiday.

In 2003, China became only the third country in the world to send a human into orbit. It followed with a two-man mission in 2005.

The spacecraft will be launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the country’s north-western Gansu province.

Technically demanding

Technicians have been busily checking the readiness of the spacecraft, which will carry the crew into orbit on a mission lasting up to five days.

This flight will be more technically demanding than the last.

Performer in space suit during Olympics opening ceremony (Getty)

China highlighted its space successes during the Beijing Olympics

For the spacewalk, two crew members will go into the spacecraft’s vacuum module. One yuhangyuan will carry out the spacewalk; the other is there to monitor the activity and assist in case of an emergency.Two types of spacesuits – one made in China, the other from Russia – will be carried up on the flight.

It is unclear why China has opted for two different types of spacesuit.

Spaceflight analyst Dr Morris Jones commented that China might want to test the suits against each other. Alternatively, he said, it might not be ready or willing to fly a mission exclusively with its own suits.

The crew members, whose identities have not been released, have been training in a water tank to get used to weightlessness and to study procedures for the flight.

Bad vibrations

The Shenzhou spacecraft closely resembles the Russian Soyuz capsules, but is substantially larger. Unlike the Soyuz, it has an orbital module that is equipped with its own propulsion, allowing autonomous flight.

Testing of the spacecraft and the Long-March II-F rocket which will loft it into orbit is now complete, a Chinese space official told Xinhua.

Engineers have reportedly made over 30 technical improvements to the new rocket.

“There were some rocket vibrations after it took off which sometimes made our astronauts experience physical discomfort,” Jin Muchun, the Long-March II-F’s chief designer, told the state-owned television channel CCTV9 in July.

“So we have been trying to eliminate the vibrations by changing the frequency of the engine and the electric circuit of the rocket.”

According to reports, a small satellite will also be launched during the mission.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

In July, Dr Michael Griffin, the head of the US space agency (Nasa), told News that China was capable of sending a manned mission to the Moon in the next decade, if it so wished.

August 21, 2008

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Courtesy BBC NEWS

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

As accusations of indiscriminate violence, murder and genocide are hurled between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetia conflict, human rights investigators are painstakingly trying to establish the facts on the ground.

A Georgian woman stands near a damaged apartment block in Gori, Georgia

Residential buildings were hit during the conflict

Researchers suggest both sides may have violated the codes of war – using violence that was either disproportionate or indiscriminate, or both – claims that the International Criminal Court is currently investigating.

Russian prosecutors have announced they are opening criminal cases into the deaths of 133 civilians who they say were killed by Georgian forces.

Initially, however, Russia suggested more than 1,500 people had died in the conflict.

Last week, Georgia filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice, based at The Hague, alleging the country had attempted to ethnically cleanse Georgians from the breakaway regions.

Uncovering the facts – even of very recent history – becomes a battle in itself when people are displaced and desperate.

“Gathering comprehensive data about the dead from civilians is a time-consuming task,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told BBC News.

“We have to cross-check data and check that people are not misidentified or miscounted.”

Shifting status

Neighbors who take up arms during a conflict, for example, shift status, becoming combatants rather than civilians, which can confuse calculations of civilian death tolls.

Russian tanks in South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Russian forces have been accused of using cluster bombs

“We have to make sure there is no double-counting – if a body is moved, we have to be careful not to count it twice – maybe it is counted once in the village itself and then it could be counted again in the city morgue,” Ms Denber said.

“To get really accurate figures you would really have to go to every single village.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which has just gained access to South Ossetia – says it hopes to uncover the truth by remaining neutral and only revealing what its told – by survivors, eyewitnesses and relatives – to relevant authorities.

“The work of the ICRC is totally confidential,” spokeswoman Jessica Barry explained from the Georgian capital, Tblisi.

“We do take allegations of arrests, of people missing or reported dead. We can also offer our services to the authorities for the transfer of mortal remains.

“All the work we do is gathering confidential information which we share with the authorities with the aim of finding out the location of loved ones for the civilian population.”

War of words

The ferocity of the conflict on the ground was echoed in the way both Russian and Georgian officials conducted a media war, making ever graver accusations against each other, competing for television airtime and giving spiralling civilian death tolls.

A woman walks past propaganda poster depicting Russian aggression

The war has been played out both in the media and on the ground

All of which muddies the waters when trying to establish if human rights and international laws have been violated.

“There has been a lot of controversy about the Russian figures,” says HRW’s Rachel Denber.

“When that figure came out – of 1,500 dead – it wasn’t very helpful, it didn’t provide any sourcing or methodology, there were no details about how the figure was calculated. We certainly can’t confirm it.”

“The problem here is that when Russia puts out a figure like that it does two things – it distracts attention from where there are violations and from the real scale of what is happening.”

The organization puts the civilian death toll in the dozens, rather than the hundreds.

Responsibility to protect

As well as multiple rocket launchers mounted on four-wheel drives, known as Grads, campaigners say cluster munitions – which can contain hundreds of smaller bomblets – were used during the conflict. Both these weapons are intrinsically indiscriminate, they say.

Disproportionate attacks are prohibited […] if there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch

“If you have a military objective then the Grad rocket is not a targeted weapon, civilians are going to get hit and that is exactly what happened, and happened on a significant scale. The proximity was such that it was indiscriminate,” Ms Denber said.

She cited a reported case in which Russian forces dropped bombs on a convoy of passenger cars fleeing Georgia’s Gori district, and another in which Georgian soldiers pursued armed South Ossetian militias using tanks, driving and firing through a residential neighborhood.

“The rule is that disproportionate attacks are prohibited. In other words, if you have your eye on a military target, and there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire,” Ms Denber said.

Although the fighting has now stopped, violations continue, she says, with Russian forces failing to protect civilians in areas of Georgia and South Ossetia that they control – a key part of the international law governing behavior during war.

“We have numerous stories of Ossetian forces roving around ethnic Georgian villages – running around, looting homes, torching them,” she said.

“We are looking into other accounts of violence, of people being robbed at gunpoint. These are areas that Russian forces have control over – it is their responsibility to protect them.”

August 14, 2008

Japanese satellite rides skyward

Japanese satellite rides skyward

Ariane launch (Esa)

An early evening launch for Ariane

The first wholly home-designed and built telecommunications satellite for Japan has gone safely into orbit.

The Superbird-7 spacecraft went up on an Ariane rocket from Europe’s Kourou launch facility in French Guiana.

Built by the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, the satellite will deliver TV and other services to Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Currently, all Japanese broadcasters and commercial telecoms carriers use space platforms made in the US.

As is customary for an Ariane, the latest mission delivered two satellites into orbit.

The second was the AMC-21 spacecraft, a TV and internet platform whose services will be focussed on North and Central America.

The rocket left the ground at 1744 local time (2044 GMT) and released the Superbird-7 just under half-an-hour later, with the AMC-21 following shortly afterwards.

This flight was the fifth Ariane mission of 2008. Two further flights are planned in the coming months – making this year’s schedule the busiest since the vehicle’s commercial introduction in 1999.

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