China set to send 3 astronauts on longest crewed mission yet

China set to send 3 astronauts on longest crewed mission yet
Astronauts Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu arrive for a meeting ahead of the launch of the Long March-2F Y13 rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft and them in China’s second crewed mission to build its own space station. (Reuters)
Updated 14 October 2021

China set to send 3 astronauts on longest crewed mission yet

China set to send 3 astronauts on longest crewed mission yet
  • The Shenzhou-13 spaceship is expected to be launched into space on a Long March-2F rocket early Saturday morning
  • The first crew who served a 90-day mission aboard the main Tianhe core module of the space station returned in mid-September

BEIJING: China is preparing to send three astronauts to live on its space station for six months — a new milestone for a program that has advanced rapidly in recent years.
It will be China’s longest crewed space mission and set a record for the most time spent in space by Chinese astronauts. The Shenzhou-13 spaceship is expected to be launched into space on a Long March-2F rocket early Saturday morning from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northwestern China.
The first crew who served a 90-day mission aboard the main Tianhe core module of the space station returned in mid-September.
The new crew has two veterans of space travel. Pilot Zhai Zhigang, 55, performed China’s first spacewalk. Wang Yaping, 41, and the only woman on the mission, carried out experiments and led a science class in real-time while traveling on one of China’s earlier experimental space stations. Ye Guangfu, 41, will be traveling into space for the first time.
The three later spoke to reporters through a glass barrier at the Jiuquan base, with Zhai saying the length of the mission would be a challenge, but one he was confident they were prepared to meet.
“After almost two years of training (together), our crew members now know each other well and have a tacit understanding. I believe that with the power and wisdom of our team, (we) will definitely resolve all difficulties,” Zhai said.
Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who lived on Russia’s old Mir space station in 1994 and 1995, holds the record for the longest stay in space at more than 14 months.
The mission is expected to continue the work of the initial crew, who conducted two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and held a video call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
China Manned Space Agency Deputy Director Lin Xiqiang said the rocket was fueled and ready to fly. “All systems conducting the Shenzhou-13 mission have undergone a comprehensive rehearsal. The flight crew is in good condition and our pre-launch preparations are in order,” Lin said at a Thursday briefing.
The crew’s scheduled activities include up to three spacewalks to install equipment in preparation for expanding the station, verifying living conditions in the module and conducting experiments in space medicine and other areas, Lin said.
China’s military, which runs the space program, has released few details but says it will send multiple crews to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional. Shenzhou-13 will be the fifth mission, including trips without crews to deliver supplies.
When completed with the addition of two more modules — named Mengtian and Wentian — the station will weigh about 66 tons, a fraction of the size of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and will weigh around 450 tons when completed. Lin said the two additional modules would be sent before the end of next year during the stay of the yet-to-be-named Shenzhou-14 crew.
China was excluded from the International Space Station largely due to US objections over the Chinese program’s secretive nature and close military ties. It made plans to build its own space stations in the early 1990s and had two experimental modules before starting on the permanent station.
US law requires congressional approval for contact between the American and Chinese space programs, but China is cooperating with space experts from countries including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy.
Lin said China was expanding such cooperation, with Ye Guangfu having undergone training with the European Space Agency in 2016, and European astronauts participating in China’s sea survival training in 2017.
“We welcome astronauts from other countries entering our space station and conducting international cooperation,” Lin said. “We believe that after the station enters the operation and utilization phase, more foreign astronauts will visit our station.”
Commenting on his time with the ESA, Ye called it an unforgettable experience that “made me realize that the exploration of the vast space and the construction of a home in space are a shared mission and pursuit for astronauts.”
“I look forward to the day when international colleagues can travel in space together (with us), and I welcome them to visit China’s space station,” Ye said.
China has launched seven crewed missions with a total of 14 astronauts aboard since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a person in space on its own. Two Chinese astronauts have flown twice.
Along with its crewed missions, China has expanded its work on lunar and Mars exploration, including placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and returning lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose accompanying Zhurong rover has been exploring for evidence of life on the red planet.
Other programs call for collecting soil from an asteroid and bring back additional lunar samples. China has also expressed an aspiration to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.


UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official

UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official
Updated 21 sec ago

UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official

UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official
  • London only miscalculated how long it would take: National security adviser
  • Stephen Lovegrove: ‘We certainly did not have the speed of the collapse as the central scenario, in fact nobody did’

LONDON: Britain expected Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban from the moment the US signed its withdrawal deal with the group 18 months ago, a senior official has admitted.

Stephen Lovegrove, the UK’s national security adviser, told a parliamentary committee that the government only miscalculated how long it would take for the group to retake Afghanistan.

“There was a central assessment that ultimately what would happen would be that there would be a government which is either entirely Taliban or dominated by the Taliban,” Lovegrove told a joint committee convened to examine claims that the government failed to heed warnings by the British ambassador about the group’s advances.

“We thought that there was a considerably lower likelihood — though not negligible likelihood — of civil war,” said Lovegrove. 

“But when we were thinking about the Taliban-dominated government and how quickly that would come to pass, we certainly did not have the speed of the collapse as the central scenario, in fact nobody did. The Taliban didn’t, the Afghan government didn’t, the Americans didn’t.”

The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban this year appeared to catch world powers off guard.

But Lovegrove’s admission is the first time a British official has acknowledged that the UK acted in expectation of a Taliban takeover, rather than their entry into a democratic or power-sharing government.

World powers are still coming to terms with Afghanistan’s new government, and most have not yet recognized the Taliban as the official rulers of the country.


Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran

Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran
Updated 6 min 35 sec ago

Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran

Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran
  • Standoff between the countries was sparked by allegations from Tehran that its sworn enemy Israel maintained a military presence in Azerbaijan

BAKU: Azerbaijan released Thursday two Iranian truck drivers whose arrest last month on charges of illegally crossing into the country strained ties between Baku and Tehran.
The move marks a thaw between Azerbaijan and Iran a week after their foreign ministers agreed to resolve a crisis in ties through dialogue.
Azerbaijan’s customs department said Thursday it had handed over the drivers to the Iranian side in a decision “guided by principles of humanitarianism, mutual respect and good neighborliness.”
The standoff between the countries was sparked by allegations from Tehran that its sworn enemy Israel maintained a military presence in Azerbaijan. Baku denied the claims.
Iran vowed to take any necessary action and staged military drills near its border with Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov spoke last week by phone with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and the pair agreed to resolve differences through dialogue.
Israel is a major arms supplier to Azerbaijan, which late last year won a six-week war with neighbor Armenia for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan and Iran have long been at loggerheads over Tehran’s backing of Armenia in the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The war last year ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that saw Armenia cede swathes of territory — including a section of Azerbaijan’s 700-kilometer (430-mile) border with Iran.
Baku said the drivers entered Azerbaijan through that territory, bypassing border control to avoid customs duties it had imposed recently — to Iran’s fury — on cargo transit to Armenia.
Tehran has long been wary of separatist sentiment among its ethnic Azeri minority, who make up around 10 million of Iran’s 83 million population.


Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference

Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference
Updated 54 min 12 sec ago

Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference

Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference
  • Myanmar accused the bloc of violating its decades-old policy of not meddling in each others’ domestic affairs
  • Myanmar has been a thorn in ASEAN’s side since it joined in 1997

SINGAPORE: Southeast Asia’s regional bloc should do some “soul-searching” on its policy of not interfering in members’ internal affairs to deal effectively with issues like the Myanmar crisis, Malaysia said Thursday.
The comments came after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week excluded Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from a forthcoming leaders’ summit, a rare rebuke.
The junta has been accused of failing to stick to a roadmap drawn up with ASEAN aimed at defusing the bloody crisis that erupted after a February coup.
Following the snub, Myanmar accused the bloc of violating its decades-old policy of not meddling in each others’ domestic affairs — which critics say has made the grouping toothless.
Saifuddin Abdullah, foreign minister of member state Malaysia, said he understood that the policy is “almost sacrosanct” in ASEAN and had been “useful and practical” in the past.
“But when we are faced with situations like the one that is currently occurring in Myanmar, then perhaps ASEAN should actually do some soul-searching,” he said at a virtual dialogue on human rights in Myanmar.
“As much as the issue in Myanmar is local and national ... it has impact on the region and we should also recognize the concerns of the other nine member states,” he said.
The junta leader was excluded after authorities refused to allow an ASEAN special envoy to meet with ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar, mostly ruled by the military since a 1962 coup, has been a thorn in ASEAN’s side since it joined in 1997.
Elections in 2015 overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party ushered in the start of civilian rule — but this was cut short by the most recent coup.
The Southeast Asian bloc has been under international pressure to address unrest and the junta’s brutal crackdown on dissent.
Diplomatic sources said key ASEAN members like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore pushed for tough action to stop the group’s credibility being tarnished.


Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions
Updated 21 October 2021

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday confirmed the state had reached that target, with more restrictions set to ease as inoculations hit 80% and 90%

MELBOURNE: One of the world’s most locked-down cities will reopen late Thursday, with Melbourne residents hoping this sixth bout of stay-at-home restrictions will be their last.

Five million people in Australia’s second-biggest city have endured lockdowns totalling more than 260 days since the beginning of the pandemic.

But now that 70 percent of eligible people in Melbourne and surrounding Victoria state are fully vaccinated, restrictions that began on August 5 will be lifted.

“When the clock strikes midnight tonight, the lockdown is over,” state deputy premier James Merlino said, hailing the state’s “extraordinary efforts.”

“I hope everyone enjoys those first reunions with their families, the first footy, netball, cricket training with the kids, the first pot and parma (beer and chicken parmesan) at the pub.”

Half a dozen lockdowns have taken their toll on the once-buzzing city, which prided itself on a vibrant arts scene and cafe culture.

In 2021, it lost the mantle of Australia’s most liveable city amid violent anti-lockdown protests and a small exodus of residents to Covid-free regional towns.

Authorities on Thursday announced a fresh boost to mental health funding and services, in a nod to the burden placed on Melbourne residents.

Multiple studies have found elevated levels of psychological distress during the pandemic, official government research shows.

David Malaspina, owner of loved Melbourne eatery Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, said lingering Covid-safe rules were “exceptionally challenging” but he was excited to welcome back customers.

“Our city’s great because of the people that are here. We would like to see our people back,” he said.

While fully vaccinated Melbourne residents will enjoy increased freedoms from midnight, they cannot leave the city and retail shops must remain closed until the double-dose rate lifts to 80 percent — likely within weeks.

Limits on patrons at cafes, bars and restaurants will remain in place, squeezing business owners who are also grappling with staff shortages caused by international border closures.

Australia’s ABC News reported on Thursday that Victoria will also lift quarantine requirements for international travelers at the end of the month. Sydney and surrounding New South Wales state are also set to scrap the requirements on November 1.

While varying rules make it difficult to directly compare lockdowns — Toronto eateries were reportedly closed to diners for more than 360 days while Buenos Aires was under harsh restrictions for much of 2020 — Melbourne has spent among the most days under stay-at-home orders.

Praising the reopening as well as Australia’s soaring vaccination rates, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared “victory is in sight” in what he described as the “battle of our generation.”

“You’re about to start reclaiming your lives,” he wrote in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.

“It’s a new chapter, as you begin to open up safely. And stay safely open.”

Australia so far has been spared the worst of the pandemic, recording about 150,000 cases and 1,500 deaths in a population of 25 million.

Authorities in Victoria have warned hospitals will likely come under “intense pressure” as a result of the decision to reopen even as Covid surges there, with 2,200 new cases recorded Wednesday.

But after pursuing “Covid zero” for much of the pandemic, Melbourne has followed Sydney’s lead in abandoning the strategy after failing to contain the highly infectious Delta variant.

Tony Kay, owner of Melbourne restaurant CopperWood, said he was confident the vibrant city would “be back better than ever.”

“Even better, as soon as the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “Melbourne is very resilient.”


Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest
Updated 13 min 33 sec ago

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest
  • One foreign journalist was struck with the butt of a rifle by one Taliban fighter
  • Afghans have staged street protests across the country since the Taliban returned to power

KABUL: The Taliban struck several journalists to prevent media coverage of a women’s rights protest in Kabul on Thursday.
A group of about 20 women marched from near the ministry of education to the ministry of finance in the Afghan capital.
Wearing colorful headscarves they chanted slogans including: “Don’t politicize education,” as traffic drove by shortly before 10 am.
The women held placards saying: “We don’t have the rights to study and work,” and” “Joblessness, poverty, hunger,” as they walked with their arms in the air.
The Taliban authorities allowed the women to walk freely for around an hour and a half, AFP journalists saw.
However, one foreign journalist was struck with the butt of a rifle by one Taliban fighter, who swore and kicked the photographer in the back as another punched him.
At least two more journalists were hit as they scattered, pursued by Taliban fighters swinging fists and launching kicks.
Zahra Mohammadi, one of the protest organizers, said the women were marching despite the risks they face.
“The situation is that the Taliban don’t respect anything: not journalists — foreign and local — or women,” she said.
“The schools must reopen to girls. But the Taliban took this right from us.”
High school girls have been blocked from returning to classes for more than a month, while many women have been banned from returning to work since the Taliban seized power in mid-August.
“My message to all girls and women is this: ‘Don’t be afraid of the Taliban, even if your family doesn’t allow you to leave your home. Don’t be afraid. Go out, make sacrifices, fight for your rights’,” Mohammadi said.
“We have to make this sacrifice so that the next generation will be in peace.”
Children walked alongside the protest in downtown Kabul, although it was unclear if they were part of the organized group.
Some Taliban fighters policing the march wore full camouflaged combat gear, including body armor, helmets and knee pads, while others were wearing traditional Afghan clothing.
Their weapons included US-made M16 assault rifles and AK-47s.
Unthinkable under the hard-line Islamist group’s last rule in the 1990s, Afghans have staged street protests across the country since the Taliban returned to power, sometimes with several hundred people and many with women at forefront.
But a ban on unauthorized demonstrations has meant protests against Afghanistan’s new masters have dwindled.