NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

Pictures showing NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter hovering over the Martian surface on Monday during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. (AFP)
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Updated 19 April 2021

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

  • It was a brief hop, just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters), but accomplished all the major milestones
  • The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

CAPE CANAVERAL: NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.
The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters) — but accomplished all the major milestones.
“We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is,” said project manager MiMi Aung, offering a virtual hug to her socially distanced colleagues in the control room as well as those at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.
The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.
Scientists cheered the news from around the world and even from space.
“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.
This first test flight — with more to come by Ingenuity — holds great promise, Brown noted. Future helicopters could serve as otherworldly scouts for rovers, and eventually astronauts, in difficult, dangerous places.
Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the preprogrammed flight had succeeded more than 170 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. The first attempt had been delayed a week because of a software error.
When the news finally came, the operations center filled with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared, showing the helicopter’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.
“The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.
Next came stunning color video of the copter’s clean landing, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Aung said in thanking everyone.
The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its intended altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, which lasted a mere 12 seconds on Dec. 17, 1903.
To accomplish all this, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1% the thickness of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldly lift.
More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is just 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.
Ingenuity also had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind, and is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for surviving the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.
NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield. Following Monday’s success, NASA named the Martian airfield for the Wright brothers.
“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” NASA’s science missions Chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.
The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend. “Get to the chopper!” he shouted in a tweeted video, a line from his 1987 sci-fi film “Predator.”
Up to five increasingly ambitious flights are planned, and they could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as lookouts for human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.
Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights so that the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.
The team plans to test the helicopter’s limits, possibly even wrecking the craft, leaving it to rest in place forever, having sent its data back home.
Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny.
“Big sister’s watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead camera operator.


Young whale stranded in London’s Thames is put down

Updated 11 May 2021

Young whale stranded in London’s Thames is put down

  • The whale, measuring three to four meters (10-13 feet), was first spotted in southwest London on Sunday
  • Rescue efforts by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) service and firefighters failed when the whale slipped its leash and then swam upriver

LONDON: A juvenile minke whale that became stranded in London’s River Thames has been put down after its condition deteriorated and vets decided it could not survive in the open water.
The whale, measuring three to four meters (10-13 feet), was first spotted in southwest London on Sunday and was washed ashore at a set of gates controlling water flow.
Rescue efforts by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) service and firefighters failed when the whale slipped its leash and then swam upriver, instead of toward the sea.
“The last 45 minutes we were with the whale its condition was deteriorating, its breathing wasn’t right and it wouldn’t have survived much longer,” BDMLR national coordinator Julia Cable said late Monday.
She said vets from London Zoo injected a “large” anaesthetic dose into the malnourished whale. It is thought the whale got separated from its mother and was unable to fend for itself.
“It’s always sad, but we now know that putting it back out into the open sea would have been sending it to starve out there,” Cable said.
Minke whales are the smallest of the world’s great whales and typically grow to a length of 10 meters in adulthood.
They can usually be found throughout the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans but have been spotted as far north as the Arctic and as far south as the Equator.
In January 2006, a northern bottlenose whale became stuck in the Thames, sparking huge media interest. It died as it was being ferried back out to sea.


Obama dog Bo, once a White House celebrity, dies from cancer

Updated 09 May 2021

Obama dog Bo, once a White House celebrity, dies from cancer

  • News of Bo's passing was shared by Obama and his wife Michelle on Instagram
  • Bo, a Portuguese water dog, was a gift to the Obamas from the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

WASHINGTON: Former President Barack Obama’s dog Bo died Saturday after a battle with cancer, the Obamas said on social media.
News of Bo’s passing was shared by Obama and his wife Michelle on Instagram, where both expressed sorrow at the passing of a dog the former president described as a “true friend and loyal companion.”
“He tolerated all the fuss that came with being in the White House, had a big bark but no bite, loved to jump in the pool in the summer, was unflappable with children, lived for scraps around the dinner table, and had great hair,” Barack Obama wrote.
Bo, a Portuguese water dog, was a gift to the Obamas from the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a key supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign who became close to the family. Bo helped Obama keep a promise to daughters Malia and Sasha that they could get a dog after the election.
A companion dog, Sunny, joined the family in August 2013.
Both were constant presences around the White House and popular among visitors there, often joining the Obamas for public events. The dogs entertained crowds at the annual Easter Egg Roll and Bo occasionally joined first lady Obama to welcome tourists. The dogs also cheered wounded service members, as well as hospitalized children the first lady would visit each year just before Christmas.
In a post featuring a slideshow of images of Bo — including one of him sitting behind the president’s Resolute Desk in the Oval Office — first lady Obama recounted his years bringing some levity to the White House.
“He was there when Barack and I needed a break, sauntering into one of our offices like he owned the place, a ball clamped firmly in his teeth. He was there when we flew on Air Force One, when tens of thousands flocked to the South Lawn for the Easter Egg Roll, and when the Pope came to visit,” she wrote.
First lady Obama wrote that she was grateful for the time the family got to spend with him due to the pandemic, and said that over the past year, “no one was happier than Bo.”
“All his people were under one roof again,” she wrote.

 

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Belgian farmer moves border with France by 2 meters

Updated 05 May 2021

Belgian farmer moves border with France by 2 meters

  • Group of local history enthusiasts discovered the move during a walk in a wooded area on the French side
  • In Belgian village of Erquelinnes, the mayor appeared keen to avoid an international incident

BRUSSELS: A Belgian farmer unwittingly extended his country’s territory by moving an ancient stone marking the border with France that was on his land.
A group of local history enthusiasts discovered the move during a walk in a wooded area on the French side.
The discovery of the stone, now sitting 2.20 meters (7.2 feet) away from where it was placed in accordance with a border agreement two centuries ago, has caused a flap in a normally sleepy rural area.
“If it belongs to us, it belongs to us. We don’t want to be robbed of 2 meters,” a resident of the French village of Bousignies-sur-Roc told RTL Info.
On the other side, in the Belgian village of Erquelinnes, mayor David Lavaux appeared keen to avoid an international incident.
“The land was sold and I think the person who bought it changed the borders the way he wanted,” he said. “But this isn’t just a private border, it’s a border between countries and you can’t just at will move boundary markers that have been there for a long time.”


Five charged in snatching at gunpoint of Lady Gaga’s dogs

Updated 30 April 2021

Five charged in snatching at gunpoint of Lady Gaga’s dogs

  • Gaga was filming in Rome in February when her dog walker was shot and her dogs stolen
  • The dogs were returned unharmed after Gaga offered a $500,000 reward

LOS ANGELES: Five people have been charged with attempted murder, robbery and other offenses in connection with the snatching at gunpoint in February of Lady Gaga’s dogs and the shooting of their walker, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said on Thursday.
Police said in a separate statement that four of the five people arrested were known gang members. The fifth person, a woman, was the person who reported she had found the dogs and returned them.
The singer’s two dogs were returned two days after they were stolen in Hollywood.
The French bulldogs were snatched at night after their dog walker was shot in the chest. They were returned unharmed after Gaga offered a $500,000 reward.
Los Angeles police said on Thursday that detectives do not believe the suspects were targeting the victim because of the dogs’ owner.
“However, evidence suggests the suspects knew the great value of the breed of dogs and was the motivation for the robbery,” the statement said.
Gaga was filming in Rome when the theft occurred. Her dog walker, Ryan Fischer, said later that he had suffered “a very close call with death.”
Fischer was walking three of Gaga’s bulldogs in a residential area in Hollywood when a car pulled up alongside them and two men demanded he turn over the animals, police said at the time.
Fischer was shot once by the assailants, who drove off with two of the dogs. A third escaped and was later found by police.
The District Attorney’s Office said the defendants were expected to be arraigned later on Thursday.
Three individuals were charged with one count each of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit robbery and second-degree robbery. One of the three also was charged with assault and a firearms offense. The woman who claimed to have found the dogs and a fifth defendant were charged with being accessories after the fact. The woman additionally was charged with receiving stolen property.
“This was a brazen street crime that left a man seriously wounded,” District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement.
“We have alleged very serious charges in this case and have faith that justice will be appropriately served as this case unfolds in court.”


Polluted Lebanon lake spews out tons of dead fish

Updated 29 April 2021

Polluted Lebanon lake spews out tons of dead fish

  • A preliminary report said a virus had killed only carp in the highly polluted Qaraoun lake
  • Hundreds of fish lay dead on the lake’s banks and the stench of their rotting flesh clung to the air Thursday

QAROUN: Tonnes of dead fish have washed up on the shore of a highly polluted lake in eastern Lebanon in recent days, an official said Thursday.
It was not immediately clear what caused the dead fish in Lake Qaraoun on the Litani river, which several local fishermen said was unprecedented in scale.
A preliminary report said a virus had killed only carp in the lake, but a veteran water expert said their deaths could also have been caused by pollution.
Hundreds of fish of all sizes lay dead on the banks of the more than five kilometer long lake Thursday, and the stench of their rotting flesh clung to the air.
Men shoveled carcasses into a wheelbarrow, as a mechanical digger scooped up more into the back of a truck.
“It’s our third day here picking up dead fish,” said Nassrallah el-Hajj, from the Litani River Authority, dressed in fishing waders, adding they had so far “carried away around 40 tons.”
On the water’s edge, 61-year-old fisherman Mahmoud Afif said it was a “disaster.”
“In my life I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the father-of-two.
The Qaraoun lake was built as a reservoir on the Litani river in 1959 to produce hydropower and provide water for irrigation.
But in recent years experts have warned huge quantities of wastewater, industrial waste, and agricultural runoff containing pesticides and fertilizer flooding into it have made it increasingly toxic.
Since 2018 fishing has been forbidden in the reservoir as the fish there was declared unfit for human consumption, though fish from the lake have continued to appear in several markets.
The Litani River Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon on Friday warned of a “viral epidemic,” and called for fishing to be forbidden in the Litani as well as in the lake.
It said the likely disease had only affected carp, while four other types of fish appeared to be unaffected.
AFP saw several dead fish with white cysts on their scales.
Kamal Slim, a water expert who has been taking samples of the lake water for the past 15 years, said pollution could also be the cause.
“Without analysis, we cannot be decisive,” said the researcher.
But the lake is also home to cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, and in warmer months the excess nutrients from pollution have caused the bacteria to erupt into bright green blooms that release toxins.
“Right now there is a cyanobacteria bloom, though less thick than last year,” he said, with the blooms harming fish, especially when they are weaker during mating and spawning seasons.
“Another possibility is very toxic ammonium,” he said.
In July 2016, Lebanese media reported that tons of fish floated to the surface overnight in Qaraoun.
Slim said at the time it was due to a toxic bloom.