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Chinese say space lab fall ‘nothing to worry about’

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A piece of Chinese spacecraft is due to plunge to Earth sometime between Saturday night and Sunday evening, the European Space Agency has said.

The Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace 1), which is about the size of a bus, was sent into orbit in 2011 for experiments as part of China’s space programme.

It had been set for a controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

It stopped working in March 2016, however, three years after it was last occupied.

Without being able to communicate with the space lab, Earth-based controllers have no way of firing its engines or thrusters and no way of controlling its descent.

Tiangong-1. is expected to re-enter on Easter Sunday. Pic: CMSE
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Tiangong-1 is expected to re-enter on Easter Sunday. Pic: CMSE

The craft is about 120 miles from Earth, down from about 185 miles in January, according to the European Space Agency.

Previous estimates showed Tiangong-1’s re-entry into the atmosphere would be on 1 April (Easter Sunday) or three days either side of that date.

The ESA revised the estimate due to a number of factors, including calmer weather than expected. But the estimate was still “highly variable”, it warned.

Researchers had said that a number of the spacecraft’s parts – including its dense rocket engines – would be unlikely to burn up, leaving chunks of the craft to crash towards the planet’s surface.

They fear that debris could survive the atmosphere and land anywhere 43 degrees either side of the equator.

Tiangong-1's potential re-entry areas. Pic: ESA
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Tiangong-1’s potential re-entry areas. Pic: ESA

The China Manned Space Engineering Office said on its WeChat social media account that falling spacecraft do “not crash into the Earth fiercely like in sci-fi movies, but turn into a splendid (meteor shower) and move across the beautiful starry sky as they race towards the Earth”.

They said the atmospheric drag would tear away the external components of the craft when it gets to an altitude of around 60 miles.

The heat will grow and friction will cause the main structure of the lab to burn or blow up, with most of the parts dissolving in the air.

Some of the debris will fall slowly before landing, most likely in the ocean, the Chinese predicted.

The ESA said nearly 6,000 uncontrolled re-entries of large objects have occurred over the past 60 years without anyone being hurt.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “I want to highlight that we attach importance to this issue and we’ve been dealing with it very responsibly in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.

“If there is a need, we will promptly be in touch with the relevant country.”

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Israeli ground forces launch attacks on Gaza as fighting worsens | World News

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Israeli ground forces began launching attacks on Gaza in a widening of hostilities as Israel braced for more internal strife between its Arab and Jewish citizens following Friday prayers.

The Israeli military said air and ground forces were firing at the Hamas-run enclave, though it does not appear to mean the start of a ground invasion, with Sky News witnessing troops launching artillery and tank rounds from Israel’s side of the border.

“I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement. “We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force.”

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has intercepted many of the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip

Thousands of Israeli forces along with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are massing along the frontier with Gaza, preparing to push inside if given the order, in what would be a hugely significant escalation.

Unperturbed, Palestinian militants continued to launch rockets from the strip towards Israel into Friday morning.

At least 109 Palestinians have died since the exchanges began on Monday, including 28 children and 15 women, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Palestinian militants have said 20 of their fighters are among the dead, though Israeli officials said this figure is much higher.

Almost half of the deaths happened on Thursday – the deadliest day so far.

On the Israeli side, seven people have been killed, including two children and a soldier.

But this is a crisis on many fronts, as decades of Israeli-Palestinian trauma erupt into clashes on the streets of many towns and cities inside Israel – with Arabs and Jews, who had lived together peacefully, turning on each other, prompting warnings of a risk of civil war.

Synagogues have been attacked, cars torched and individuals beaten up by mobs in the worst internal violence in decades.

New protests could erupt following Friday prayers, with al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City a potential flashpoint.

It was at this walled compound – one of the most sacred sites in Islam, which is also revered by Jews and Christians – that violence between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters on Monday sparked the first volley of rockets from Gaza into Israel that ignited the wider crisis.

A Palestinian boy looks at ruins of buildings which were destroyed in Israeli air strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Pic:  Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
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The blockaded strip is home to some two million Palestinians who have no means to flee. Pic: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

There is of course a regional dimension as well.

On Thursday night, three rockets were fired towards Israel from Lebanon. They landed harmlessly in the Mediterranean Sea in what appears to have been a show of solidarity with Gaza by Palestinian groups in Lebanon rather than the start of a separate offensive.

With so much at stake, frantic diplomatic efforts are underway to try to broker a ceasefire.

Egyptian officials have been speaking with both sides as have officials from the United Nations. The US has dispatched a senior diplomat to the region and Russian President Vladimir Putin has added his voice to those calling for both sides to de-escalate.

In Washington, President Joe Biden said he spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction”.

He said the goal is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centres”, and called the effort “a work in progress”.

The UN Security Council is due to hold its first public session on the situation on Sunday after the US objected to an open session on Friday, apparently wanting to give diplomacy a little longer to have an effect.

However, with bombardments between the two sides – unprecedented in their intensity – entering their fifth day, there is no obvious sign that diplomacy is cooling heads.

The Israel Defence Forces has hit close to 1,000 targets in Gaza, including multi-storey buildings, rocket launch sites and individual Hamas military commanders. But this blockaded strip of territory is also home to some two million Palestinians who have no means to flee.

Overnight, masses of red flames illuminated the skies as deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City jolted people awake.

The strikes were so strong that people inside the city, several miles away, could be heard screaming in fear, according to the AP news agency.

At the same time, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a fellow Palestinian militant group, have fired close to 2,000 rockets towards Israel. Many were shot down by the country’s air defence system but some have penetrated deep into Israeli territory, including the commercial capital of Tel Aviv, sending families racing into shelters.

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Fresh uncertainty for UK tourists as Portugal extends ‘state of calamity’ until 30 May | UK News

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Britons hoping for a holiday in Portugal when travel restrictions lift next week are facing fresh uncertainty after the country extended its “state of calamity”.

The second-highest level of alert is going to remain in place until 30 May at the earliest, almost two weeks after the country is added to a “green list” of destinations where holidaymakers can go without having to isolate on their return.

Portugal would have been one of the few options for travellers seeking a quick sunny break, as many of the other countries on the “green list” are either closed to tourists, too cold, or too remote.

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Portugal would have been one of the few options for sun-seeking British tourists

Other popular hotspots such as Greece, Italy, Spain and France are on the amber list, requiring 10 days of isolation and two COVID-19 tests on return to the UK.

The new restrictions cast a shadow over the Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea that is due to take place in Porto on 29 May – an event that has already been moved from Turkey, which is on the red list.

When asked whether restrictions on travel from the UK would be lifted, Portuguese Cabinet office minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said she had “no information to give yet”.

In comments reported by the BBC, she said: “Work is going on and as soon as there is a decision it will be announced, but no decision was taken in this cabinet meeting.”

She said British fans could still come to see the football game but they would need to fly on charter planes, arriving and leaving on the same day.

On Thursday, the world’s largest travel firm warned it may be forced to cancel holiday flights to Portugal, just as the UK allows them again, because of a continuing EU ban on non-essential travel from countries outside the bloc.

TUI, which told Sky News earlier this week that people were giving up on booking a break abroad because of a lack of clarity on the rules, said holidays could not happen unless “borders are open”.

The “state of calamity” means non-residents of Portugal can only enter if their travel is essential, a COVID test is required within 72 hours of departure, and even those with a negative result can still be refused permission to board a flight or be made to quarantine in government-approved accommodation on arrival.

It is understood the UK government has been speaking with Portuguese representatives this week about unlocking travel between the two countries.

The government is also talking to the European Commission about how to safely reopen travel on the continent, the PA news agency understands.

Portugal has reported 840,929 cases of COVID-19, with 16,999 deaths.

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COVID-19: Doubt cast over Tokyo 2021 as Japanese towns ditch plans to host Olympic athletes | World News

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Japanese towns have dropped plans to host Olympic athletes – in what is a further indication of the disruption that could affect the Games.

Over 500 towns are registered to host international Olympians for training camps and cultural exchanges before Tokyo 2020 starts.

However, 40 towns have abandoned plans, concerned they will overburden medical resources amid a fourth wave.

There have been calls in Japan for the games to be put off or cancelled
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There have been calls in Japan for the Games to be delayed or cancelled

The reluctance of towns on the outskirts of Tokyo is the latest signal of the unease among people in Japan over scheduling the Games during a pandemic.

Tokyo 2020 was postponed last year and is scheduled to start on 23 July, despite a surge in COVID-19 cases and a state of emergency in the capital.

Regions scheduled to host athletes have been hard hit, including the eastern region of Chiba, where the US track and field team had been due to have a training camp.

Chiba cancelled plans to welcome the American athletes on Wednesday and governor Toshihito Kumagai said hospital beds cannot be guaranteed for athletes as they should not be given preferential treatment.

Okuizumo was going to host India’s hockey team for a training camp but it has also ditched these plans.

Seiko Hashimoto
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Politician and former Olympic athlete, Seiko Hashimoto, wants the Games to go ahead

The International Olympic Committee said on Wednesday that it is confident the Olympics would be a “historic event”.

But public opposition to the Games is growing as Japan struggles to cope with the latest surge in infections.

According to the latest figures, there were 7,521 new cases on Wednesday, including 969 infections in host-city Tokyo.

The country is in the midst of a fourth wave, with the games set to begin in July
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The country is in the midst of a fourth wave, with the games set to begin in July
Hokkaido has been running test events for the Olympic marathon but recorded over 1,000 cases on Wednesday
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Hokkaido has been running test events for the Olympic marathon but recorded over 1,000 cases on Wednesday

Hokkaido, which is hosting test events for the Olympic marathon, reported 1,029 cases on Wednesday.

Some athletes are also questioning whether the Games should go ahead, with tennis stars Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka raising their concerns.

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Anti-Olympics protest in Tokyo

Nadal said he was unsure what his calendar will look like this summer, while Williams’s doubts stem from the possibility of not being able to travel with her three-year-old daughter Olympia.

Japan’s world number two Osaka said on Tuesday that rising COVID-19 levels in Tokyo are a “big cause of concern” and said she was not sure if the Games should go ahead.

One of Japan’s most prominent executives and SoftBank’s chief executive Masayoshi Son has also voiced his concerns – saying he is “afraid” of hosting the Olympics during a pandemic.

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