NASA, SpaceX launch 4 more astronauts into orbit on flight to space station

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Reports suggest that within 10 minutes of liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage had delivered the crew capsule into orbit. (AFP)
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The SpaceX-built launch vehicle blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 9 p.m. (AFP)
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Crew 3 includes NASA's Raja Chari, Kayla Barron, Tom Marshburn and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer. (AFP)
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Updated 11 November 2021
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NASA, SpaceX launch 4 more astronauts into orbit on flight to space station

  • The mission had been confounded by a string of weather delays since its original launch window on Oct. 31
  • Within 10 minutes of liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage had delivered the crew capsule into orbit, according to launch commentators

CAPE CANAVERAL: NASA and private rocket company SpaceX launched four astronauts into orbit late on Wednesday, sending a veteran spacewalker, two younger crewmates chosen for future lunar missions and a German materials scientist on their way to the International Space Station.
The SpaceX-built launch vehicle, consisting of a Crew Dragon capsule and a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 9 p.m. (0200 GMT Thursday), with a reddish fireball lighting up the night sky as its nine Merlin engines roared to life.
The liftoff of the Dragon spacecraft, named Endurance by the crew, was aired live from Cape Canaveral on NASA TV, punctuated by the sound of cheers and applause from mission controllers. Intermittent rain and clouds over the Cape earlier in the day had cast doubt on launch prospects, but the weather cleared by flight time, NASA said.
The mission had been confounded by a string of weather delays since its original launch window on Oct. 31. One postponement earlier this month was attributed to an astronaut’s unspecified medical issue, although NASA said the problem was later resolved.
Live video footage webcast by NASA showed the four crew members strapped into the pressurized cabin of their capsule and seated calmly in their helmeted white-and-black flight suits moments after a launch that appeared to go flawlessly.
Within 10 minutes of liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage had delivered the crew capsule into orbit, according to launch commentators. Meanwhile, the rocket’s reusable lower stage, having detached from the rest of the spacecraft, flew itself back to Earth and successfully touched down on a landing platform floating on a drone vessel in the Atlantic.

Hope you enjoyed the ride
As the Dragon separated from the upper rocket stage moments later, a launch engineer on the ground radioed to the crew: “Welcome to orbit. Hope you enjoyed the ride. Dragon will take you from here. Safe travels.”
The three American astronauts and their European Space Agency crewmate were due to arrive at the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth, on Thursday evening following a flight of about 22 hours.
The flight marks the third “operational” space station crew sent to orbit aboard a Dragon capsule since NASA and SpaceX teamed up to resume space launches from American soil last year, following a nine-year hiatus at the end of the US space shuttle program in 2011.
“Crew 3” includes two members of NASA’s latest graduating class of astronauts — Raja Chari, 44, a US Air Force combat jet and test pilot serving as mission commander, and mission specialist Kayla Barron, 34, a US Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer.
The team’s designated pilot and second-in-command is veteran astronaut Tom Marshburn, 61, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon who has logged two previous spaceflights to the space station and four spacewalks. Rounding out the crew is European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer, 51, of Germany, a materials science engineer.

Bridge to the Future
Chari, Maurer and Barron were all making their debut spaceflights with Wednesday’s launch, becoming the 599th, 600th and 601st humans in space.
Both Chari and Barron also are among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade, over a half century after the Apollo lunar program ended.
NASA has extolled space station missions in low-Earth orbit as critical training grounds and incubators for technologies that will help achieve the goals of a sustainable lunar presence and eventual human flights to Mars.
With the Crew Dragon flying autonomously through space at more than 17,000 miles per hour (27,360 kmph), the four astronauts were expected to have a meal and get some sleep before arriving at the space station to begin a six-month science mission aboard the orbiting laboratory.
The launch stands as SpaceX’s fifth crewed flight overall in 17 months, and the fourth under NASA’s public-private partnership with the rocket company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc
The first was a two-astronaut trial run to the space station in May 2020, followed by the maiden NASA-SpaceX operational “Crew 1” in November of that year.
“Crew 2” flew to the space station in April of this year, and just returned safely to Earth on Monday night with a splash-down capping a record 199 days in orbit.
The latest mission also follows a flurry of recent high-profile astro-tourism flights, including the SpaceX launch in September of “Inspiration 4,” the first all-civilian crew sent to orbit without a professional astronaut on board.
The “Crew 3” team, on arriving at the space station, will be welcomed aboard by its three current occupants — two cosmonauts from Russia and Belarus and a US astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to orbit earlier this year.


Germany pledges more Sudan aid as European leaders push for funding on war anniversary

Updated 15 April 2024
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Germany pledges more Sudan aid as European leaders push for funding on war anniversary

  • The war between the Sudanese army and paramilitary Rapid Support broke out on April 15, 2023
  • Conflict has devastated infrastructure, prompted warnings of famine and displaced millions of people

PARIS: Germany will provide a further 244 million euros ($260 million) in humanitarian aid to war-torn Sudan, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Monday as European diplomts met in Paris to mark the first anniversary of the devastating conflict.
“We can manage together to avoid a terrible famine catastrophe, but only if we get active together now,” Baerbock said, adding that, in the worst-case scenario, one million people could die of hunger this year.
The United States, hoping the Paris conference could loosen purse strings elsewhere, also planned to announce an additional $100 million in aid, Reuters reported on Sunday.
At Monday’s meeting, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné was also joined by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell and EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič.
“It is obvious that the series of crises — I am thinking of Gaza and Ukraine — have pushed the Sudanese crisis into the background,” Sejourne said.
French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to meet Borrell and Lenarčič at the end of the conference, according to the EU’s external action office.
The war in Sudan broke out on April 15, 2023, between the Sudanese army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). It has devastated infrastructure, prompted warnings of famine and displaced millions of people inside and outside Sudan.
Thousands of civilians have been killed, although death toll estimates are highly uncertain, and each side has been accused of committing war crimes. Both sides have largely denied the accusations against them.
The World Health Organization said on Friday that the crisis could worsen in the coming months as the distribution of humanitarian aid and medical supplies remains restricted.
Last week, US Special Envoy Tom Perriello called the international response so far “pitiful.”
“We’re at 5 percent of the needed amount,” he said, adding that the US had already committed over a billion dollars in humanitarian relief to the conflict.


World leaders urge Middle East tension de-escalation

Updated 15 April 2024
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World leaders urge Middle East tension de-escalation

  • Leaders urge restraint and rational decision-making to avoid further instability in the region

LONDON: World leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, and the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, emphasized on Monday the need to prevent escalation in the Middle East following Iran’s failed attack on Israel.

They urged restraint and rational decision-making to avoid further instability in the region.

EU’s Borrell says Middle East on cliff edge

The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Monday the Middle East stood “on the edge of the cliff” and called for de-escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in response to a suspected Israeli attack on the Tehran’s consulate in Damascus that killed seven officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards including two senior commanders.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the April 1 airstrike on the consulate in Syria’s capital.

“We’re on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. “We have to step on the brakes and reverse gear.”

Borrell said he expected a response from Israel to the unprecedented aerial attack by Iran but hoped it would not spark further escalation.

He said there was “profound division” within the Israel’s right-wing governing coalition between hardliners seeking fierce retaliation and a “more moderate and sensible” faction.

That faction advocates for retaliation, Borrell said, “but in a way that avoids a response to the response”.

Borrell, who spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian late on Sunday, said the EU needed to have the best possible relations with Iran despite the sanctions the bloc has imposed on the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear energy programme and other issues.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that Iran does not become a nuclear power and that the Middle East is pacified,” he said.

UK's Cameron urges Israel restraint after Iran attack

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron urged Israel not to retaliate after Iran’s drone and missile attack, saying it should “think with head as well as heart” because Tehran’s strike had been a near total failure.
The strike by more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down by its Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan. It followed a suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria on April 1.
“I think they’re perfectly justified to think they should respond because they have been attacked, but we are urging them as friends to think with head as well as heart, to be smart as well as tough,” Cameron told BBC TV.
He said he was urging Israel not to escalate the tensions in the Middle East.
“In many ways this has been a double defeat for Iran. The attack was an almost total failure, and they revealed to the world that they are the malign influence in the region prepared to do this. So our hope is that there won’t be a retaliatory response,” he told Sky News.
Cameron said Britain would also work with allies to look at imposing more sanctions on Iran, and it urged Israel to return its focus on agreeing a ceasefire with Iran-backed Hamas in the Gaza war.
Macron says will do everything to avoid Middle East ‘conflagration’
President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that France would help do everything to avoid an escalation in the Middle East.
“We will do everything to avoid a conflagration that is to say an escalation,” he told the BFMTV news channel.
“For several years now we have had an air base in Jordan to fight terrorism,” he said.
“Jordanian airspace was violated... We made our planes take off and we intercepted what we had to intercept.”
Experts say Israel was able to neutralize most of the missiles and drones.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne on Sunday said he had asked the foreign ministry to summon the Iranian ambassador on Monday to express a “message of firmness.”


Philippines’ Marcos says will not hand former president Duterte to ICC over drug war

Updated 15 April 2024
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Philippines’ Marcos says will not hand former president Duterte to ICC over drug war

  • Marcos also said the trilateral agreement signed between his country and the US and Japan was not directed at anyone

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos said Monday he would not hand his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte to the International Criminal Court, which is investigating his deadly drug war.

Thousands of people have been killed in the anti-narcotics campaign started by Duterte in 2016 and continued under Marcos.

Asked Monday if he would hand Duterte — who has accused him of being a drug addict — to the ICC if it issued a warrant for his arrest, Marcos said “no.”

“We don’t recognize the warrant that they will send to us. That’s a no,” he said at a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

“We are well within international law when we take the position of not recognizing the jurisdiction of the ICC in the Philippines,” Marcos said.

Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in 2019 after the Hague-based tribunal started probing allegations of human rights abuses committed during his drug war.

It launched a formal inquiry into Duterte’s crackdown in September 2021, only to suspend it two months later after Manila said it was re-examining several hundred cases of drug operations that led to deaths at the hands of police, hitmen and vigilantes.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor later asked to reopen the inquiry, and pre-trial judges at the court eventually gave the green light in late January 2023 — a decision that Manila appealed shortly afterwards and lost.

More than 6,000 people were killed in anti-drug operations under Duterte, according to official data released by the Philippines. ICC prosecutors estimate the death toll at between 12,000 and 30,000.

Marcos has repeatedly ruled out rejoining the court and insisted it does not have jurisdiction in the country because there is a functioning judicial system.

Relations between the Marcos and Duterte families have deteriorated in the past two years.

Marcos, the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator, won the 2022 presidential election by a landslide following a massive social media misinformation campaign whitewashing his family’s history.

His vice presidential running mate Sara Duterte, the daughter of the former president, helped him win vital support from her family’s home island of Mindanao.

In recent months there has been a very public falling out between the families as they begin to shore up their rival support bases and secure key positions ahead of the mid-term elections in 2025 and presidential elections in 2028.

NO ADDITIONAL US BASES

Marcos also said the US would not be given access to more Philippine military bases.

“The answer to that is no. The Philippines has no plan to open or to establish more EDCA bases,” Marcos said in response to a question.

Manila last year announced the locations of four more military bases it is allowing the US military to use on top of the five agreed on under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, known as EDCA.

The deal allows US troops to rotate through and store defense equipment and supplies.

The four additional bases include sites near the hotly disputed South China Sea and another not far from Taiwan.

Marcos made his remarks during a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines that was attended by members of the Philippine military and foreign diplomats.

Marcos also said the trilateral agreement signed between his country and the United States and Japan was not directed at anyone, but merely a strengthening of relations between the three.

Marcos met with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in the nations’ first trilateral summit in Washington last week.

A death of a Filipino soldier in the South China Sea could be grounds to invoke a mutual defense treaty with the US, Marcos told foreign correspondents in Manila.


Australian police say Sydney knife attacker may have targeted women

Updated 15 April 2024
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Australian police say Sydney knife attacker may have targeted women

  • Five of six people killed and majority of 12 injured in Saturday’s attack in Sydeny were women
  • Australian Police say suspect Joel Cauchi, 40, suffered from mental health issues in the past

SYDNEY: Australian police said on Monday the attacker who fatally stabbed six people at a busy shopping center in Sydney’s beach suburb of Bondi may have targeted women, as the country mourned the victims and hundreds of people laid flowers near the scene.

In the attack on Saturday at the Westfield Bondi Junction mall, five of the six people killed and the majority of the 12 injured were women.

“It’s obvious to me, it’s obvious to detectives that seems to be an area of interest that the offender had focused on women and avoided the men,” New South Wales State Police Commissioner Karen Webb told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“The videos speak for themselves, don’t they? That’s certainly a line for inquiry for us.”

Witnesses described how attacker Joel Cauchi, 40, wearing shorts and an Australian national rugby league jersey, ran through the mall with a knife. He was killed by Inspector Amy Scott, who confronted him solo while he was on the rampage.

Police have said Cauchi had mental health issues in the past and there was no indication ideology was a motive.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “the gender breakdown ... was concerning” when asked on ABC Radio if it was a gender-motivated attack.

The only man who was killed during the attack was a 30-year-old security guard at the mall, Faraz Tahir, who arrived in Australia last year as a refugee from Pakistan, according to a statement from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Australia, to which he belonged.

The New South Wales government said it would give A$18 million ($12 million) for an independent coronial inquest into the attack but Premier Chris Minns ruled out any change in rules that would allow private security guards to carry firearms.

DAY OF MOURNING

Thousands of flowers and wreaths lay in a makeshift memorial outside the beachside mall in Bondi on Monday as hundreds of Sydney residents came down to pay tributes.

“It’s shocking something like this could happen so close to home,” said Wren Wyatt, who paid respects at the memorial.

“I’m still trying to get back to everyday life. I’ve taken today off to try and get my head better,” she added.

Wyatt said she was walking past the mall on Saturday when a crowd rushed past her screaming and security told her to flee.

Police said they had finished taking physical evidence at the mall and began allowing people inside to collect cars and other belongings.

Violent crimes such as Saturday’s stabbing are rare in the country of about 27 million people, which has some of the world’s toughest gun and knife laws.

The Australian national flag is flying at half-mast across the country, including at the Parliament House and Sydney’s Harbor Bridge, in honor of the victims. Sydney Opera House’s sails will be lit with a black ribbon on Monday evening.

Chinese state TV reported on Sunday that one Chinese citizen was among those who had died in the attack, without revealing the identity of the victim, adding that another Chinese citizen had been injured. 

($1 = 1.5437 Australian dollars)


In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

Updated 15 April 2024
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In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

  • India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival
  • Under Modi’s rule, peaceful protests have been crushed with force while a once-free press is threatened

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are increasingly wielding strong-arm tactics to subdue political opponents and critics of the ruling Hindu-nationalist party.

A decade into power, and on the cusp of securing five more years, the Modi government is reversing India’s decadeslong commitment to multiparty democracy and secularism.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival, the Congress Party, but few convictions. Dozens of politicians from other opposition parties are under investigation or in jail. And just last month, Modi’s government froze the Congress party’s bank accounts for what it said was non-payment of taxes.

The Modi administration says the country’s investigating agencies are independent and that its democratic institutions are robust, pointing to high voter turnout in recent elections that have delivered Modi’s party a clear mandate.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, in New Delhi, India, on April 8, 2019. (AP/File)

Yet civil liberties are under attack. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened. Violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority. And the country’s judiciary increasingly aligns with the executive branch.

To better understand how Modi is reshaping India and what is at stake in an election that begins April 19 and runs through June 1, the AP spoke with a lawyer, a journalist, and an opposition politician.

Here are their stories:

DEFENDING MODI’S CRITICS

Mihir Desai has fought for the civil liberties and human rights of India’s most disadvantaged communities, such as the poor and Muslims, for nearly four decades.

The 65-year-old lawyer from India’s financial capital Mumbai is now working on one of his – and the country’s – most high-profile cases: defending a dozen political activists, journalists and lawyers jailed in 2018 on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Modi government. The accusations, he says, are baseless – just one of the government’s all-too-frequent and audacious efforts to silence critics.

One of the defendants in the case, a Jesuit priest and longtime civil rights activist, died at age 84 after about nine months in custody. The other defendants remain in jail, charged under anti-terror laws that rarely result in convictions.

“First authorities came up with a theory that they planned to kill Modi. Now they are being accused of being terrorist sympathizers,” he said.

Lawyer Mihir Desai poses for a photograph at his office in Mumbai, India, on April 3, 2024. (AP)

The point of it all, Desai believes, is to send a message to any would-be critics.

According to digital forensics experts at US-based Arsenal Consulting, the Indian government hacked into the computers of some of the accused and planted files that were later used as evidence against them.

To Desai, this is proof that the Modi government has “weaponized” the country’s once-independent investigative agencies.

He sees threats to Indian democracy all around him. Last year, the government removed the country’s chief justice as one of three people who appoint commissioners overseeing elections; Modi and the opposition leader in parliament are the others. Now, one of Modi’s cabinet ministers has a vote in the process, giving the ruling party a 2-1 majority.

“It’s a death knell to free and fair elections,” Desai said.

A POLITICIAN’S PLIGHT IN KASHMIR

Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para, 35, was long seen as an ally in the Indian government’s interests in Kashmir. He worked with young people in the majority-Muslim, semi-autonomous region and preached to them about the benefits of embracing India and its democratic institutions – versus seeking independence, or a merger with Pakistan.

Beginning in 2018, though, Para was viewed with suspicion by the Modi government for alleged connections to anti-India separatists. Since then, he has been jailed twice: in 2019 on suspicion that he and other political opponents could stoke unrest; and in 2020 on charges of supporting militant groups — charges he denies.

The accusations stunned Para, whose People’s Democratic Party once ruled Kashmir in an alliance with Modi’s party.

But he believes the motivation was clear: “I was arrested to forcibly endorse the government’s 2019 decision,” he said, referring to a clampdown on the resistance in Kashmir after the elimination of the region’s semi-autonomous status.

Modi’s administration argues the move was necessary to fully integrate the disputed region with India and foster economic development there.

After his 2020 arrest, Para remained in jail for nearly two years, often in solitary confinement, and was subjected to “abusive interrogations,’’ according to UN experts.
“My crime was that I wanted the integration of Kashmir, not through the barrel of the gun,” said Para, who is seeking to represent Kashmir’s main city in the upcoming election.

Para sees his own plight within the larger context of the Modi government’s effort to silence perceived opponents, especially those with ties to Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India’s population.

“It is a huge ethical question … that the largest democracy in the world is not able to assimilate, or offer dignity to, the smallest pocket of its people,” he said.

The campaign to turn once-secular India into a Hindu republic may help Modi win elections in the short term, Para said, but something much bigger will be lost.

“It risks the whole idea of this country’s diversity,” he said.

A JOURNALIST FIGHTS CHARGES

In October 2020, independent journalist Sidheeq Kappan was arrested while trying to report on a government clampdown in the northern Uttar Pradesh state ruled by Modi’s party.

For days, authorities had been struggling to contain protests and outcry over a gruesome rape case. Those accused of the crime were four upper caste Hindu men, while the victim belonged to the Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy.

Kappan, a 44-year-old Muslim, was detained and jailed before he even reached the crime site, accused of intending to incite violence. After two years in jail, his case reached India’s top court in 2022. While he was quickly granted bail, the case against him is ongoing.

Kappan’s case is not unique, and he says it highlights how India is becoming increasingly unsafe for journalists. Under intense pressure from the state, many Indian news organizations have become more pliant and supportive of government policies,

“Those who have tried to be independent have come under relentless attack by the government,” he said.

Foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Kashmir, for example. Same goes for India’s northeast Manipur state, which has been embroiled in ethnic violence for almost a year.

Television news is increasingly dominated by stations touting the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda, such as a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim migrants.
 Independent TV stations have been temporarily shut down, and newspapers that run articles critical of Modi’s agenda find that any advertising from the government – an important source of revenue – quickly dries up.

Last year, the India offices of the BBC were raided on tax irregularities just days after it aired a documentary critical of Modi.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st on a worldwide list of countries’ press freedoms.

Kappan said he has barely been able to report news since his arrest. The trial keeps him busy, requiring him to travel to a court hundreds of miles away every other week. The time and money required for his trial have made it difficult for him to support his wife and three children, Kappan said.

“It is affecting their education, their mental health,” he said.