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Space scientists have big plans to avert an asteroid apocalypse

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Despite what you may have read, a 1,500-foot-wide asteroid named Bennu is not going to devastate our planet on Sept. 25, 2135. Brent Barbee, an expert on space hazards at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is clear on that point: “It’ll only closely approach Earth, not impact Earth,” he says. It should miss us by at least 65,000 miles.

But Barbee is also clear that if Bennu were to hit us, the consequences would be ugly. The 40-million-ton space rock would unleash a force equal to 80,000 atomic bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima, enough to flatten buildings for dozens of miles in all directions. And while Bennu is the most dangerous asteroid on the planetary science watch list, 1,894 others are currently listed as “potentially hazardous objects.”

To size up the risk, NASA is sending a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx to explore Bennu. The probe, shaped like an eight-foot cube with solar-panel wings, launched in September 2016 and will arrive at the space rock this August. When it does, it will nestle up to Bennu, testing rendezvous and landing techniques and collecting a surface sample to investigate the composition of such asteroids.

 This illustration provided by NASA depicts the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and the Earth. Goddard Space Flight Center / NASA via AP

Meanwhile, Barbee has been leading a study of what it would take to protect our planet if Bennu — or another object like it — were on track for a full-on impact with Earth. The team presented its findings last month, and outlined a concept for a Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response.

HAMMER would be like a planetary defense shield: a fleet of spacecraft that would either bash directly into a dangerous asteroid or set off nuclear charges to deflect it. Barbee calls the HAMMER study “the first steps towards designing spacecraft systems for asteroid deflection.”

The first steps, but hardly the last.

Taking a shot at a double asteroid

In fact, the next step in planetary defense is already underway at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. There, a team is developing a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, which is scheduled to launch around 2020. It’s the first real-world embodiment of the HAMMER concept.

The 1,100-pound DART craft has thrusters, a camera, navigation software, and that’s about it. Its design can be simple because its job is simple: find an asteroid and fly into it at full speed. Such a device is technically known as a kinetic impactor, but you can think of it as a battering ram in space.

“We think we understand the physics of asteroid deflection in theory, but we’ve never performed an experiment at the right scale,” says the Applied Physics Lab’s Andy Rivkin, lead investigator for the DART mission. “This is a dress rehearsal for a kinetic impactor-style of asteroid deflection.”

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The target set to be rammed is a double asteroid named Didymos. DART will go after the smaller of the two nearby space rocks, a 500-foot-wide rock nicknamed Didymoon. When the spacecraft reaches Didymoon, it will smash into it at 13,000 miles per hour. After the collision, DART will be destroyed but astronomers on Earth will watch to see exactly how Didymoon is changed and moved by the impact.

The DART data will be especially useful, Rivkin says, because Didymoon is believed to be what planetary scientists term a “rubble pile” — more an assemblage of small rocks than a single big one. It’s hard to know how such objects will react to a directed impact without running the experiment.

“DART will also be the first planned visit to a binary asteroid,” Rivkin says. Deflecting a double asteroid will be more complicated than dealing with a single incoming body. Soon we’ll know more about how to do it.

To nuke or not to nuke?

If a 500-foot-wide asteroid like Didymoon were on a collision course with Earth, Rivkin estimates that two or three DART-like battering rams could be enough to shove it aside — provided we had several years of advance warning. If we had to act quickly to deflect an incoming space rock, we would need a lot more force to avert a collision.

“The very best thing that can be done to prepare for the potential impact of any-sized asteroid is to find it as far ahead of the impact day as our capabilities allow,” says Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer.

 This artist’s rendering made available by NASA in July 2016 shows the mapping of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. NASA/Goddard / University of Arizona via AP

Johnson oversees the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which coordinates the monitoring of hazardous space objects. If a truly high-risk asteroid turns up, his office will work with other federal agencies to develop a response, perhaps along the lines of HAMMER.

The more immediate problem is early detection. There are a lot of potentially hazardous objects around, and simply finding them isn’t easy.

Johnson cites the daunting NASA estimates: There are roughly 25,000 Didymoon-scale asteroids, 230,000 asteroids in the 150-foot range, and millions more of diameters of 100 feet or less. So far, astronomers believe they’ve found about two-thirds of the large ones, 5 percent of the medium ones, and essentially none of the small fry.

Even the little ones could pack a mighty punch. If a mansion-size stone were to hit Earth over open ocean or remote countryside, it might cause little damage, Johnson says. If it struck a city or even near one, however, it would bring widespread death and destruction. And smaller rocks are generally unseen until they are right upon us.

In short-warning scenarios, kinetic impactors like DART would not be enough. Therefore, the HAMMER study explored the use of nuclear warheads, just as in movies like “Armageddon.” Nukes pack a bigger wallop and allow more precision, since we can adjust exactly how close they are to the asteroid when they explode.

For obvious political reasons, nobody is about to conduct a nuclear test strike on an asteroid. But OSIRIS-REx and DART will vastly increase the storehouse of data needed to turn the HAMMER studies into a real mission (even a nuclear one), if and when the need arises. After a long period of stinginess, Congress is also allotting more funding for asteroid surveys, increasing the likelihood that we’ll have enough warning to make nukes unnecessary anyway.

It seems that the world is finally embracing an argument that planetary-defense advocates like Rivkin have been making for years: “The asteroid threat is unique. It’s the only natural disaster that can be predicted and averted.”

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Kabul: Imam among 12 worshippers killed in Afghanistan mosque bombing during Friday prayers | World News

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A bomb ripped through a mosque in Kabul during Friday prayers, killing 12 worshippers including the imam, Afghan police have said.

A further 15 people were wounded – including at least one child according to eye witnesses – in the explosion which happened in Shakar Dara district, in the north of the capital.

The imam, named as Mofti Noman, may have been a target, an initial police investigation suggests, said Afghan police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz.

The bombing happened on the second of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban to mark the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.

Journalists filming and taking pictures in the aftermath of the explosion Pic: AP
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It is the latest in a surge in violence as US and NATO troops begin their final withdrawal from the war-torn country. Pic: AP

The Afghan government also agreed to abide by the truce.

No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.

But it is the latest in a surge in violence as US and NATO troops begin their final withdrawal from the war-torn country, after two decades of conflict.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid condemned the mosque attack and denied any insurgent connection.

Security personnel arrive at the explosion site in Kabul Pic: AP
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Security personnel arrive at the explosion site in Kabul. Pic: AP
A witness inspects debris from the explosion Pic: AP
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No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing. Pic: AP

He accused Afghanistan‘s intelligence agency of being responsible for the blast.

One worshipper, Muhibullah Sahebzada, said he had just arrived at the building when the explosion happened.

He told of how he heard children screaming as smoke filled the mosque and described seeing several bodies on the floor.

It appeared that an explosive device was hidden inside the pulpit at the front of the mosque, Mr Sahebzada said.

People gather at the scene of the explosion in Shakar Dara district Pic: AP
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People gather at the scene of the explosion in Shakar Dara district. Pic: AP
A man holds a blood-stained turban and cap after the explosion Pic: AP
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A man holds a blood-stained turban and cap after the explosion. Pic: AP

“I was afraid of a second explosion so I came immediately to my home,” he added.

It comes just days after a powerful car bomb attack claimed dozens of lives including many students.

The Taliban has denied involvement and condemned the attack.

Earlier this week, US troops left their southern Kandahar air base, where some NATO forces still remain.

More than 30,000 American soldiers were stationed in the region, the Taliban heartland, during the peak of the war.

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COVID-19: The three days in April that may have fuelled UK outbreak of Indian coronavirus variant | UK News

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If the new Indian variant does install itself as the main variant of COVID-19 in this country; if it does lead to more cases and in turn more deaths – and both of those remain big ifs – the question of how this happened is likely to focus on three days in April.

And the spotlight will likely fall not just on the scientists advising the prime minister, but on Boris Johnson himself.

For the decision to delay putting India on the red list of countries, from which travel is heavily limited, and the decision to implement this not immediately but with a gap of just over three days – during which thousands of travellers from India entered the country amid a surge of demand for flights – happened in the shadow of one of the biggest of all political and economic stories of recent decades: Brexit.

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Boris Johnson had been determined to visit India and seal a trade deal

One of the overarching ambitions of this country since leaving the European Union and ending the transition period at the end of last year, has been to seal as many trade deals as possible with as many of the world’s leading economies.

With the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, ambitions of agreeing a trade deal with the US any time soon were scaled back (the working ambition is now “at some point before the US mid-term elections”) and attention swung to other major economies.

India has long been a promising target for those at the Department for International Trade.

It is not just former colonial ties which make it attractive: Indian companies are now among the biggest investors in the UK and Britain has something of a trump card in these talks: visas.

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How concerning is Indian COVID variant?

The Indian government has often sought to increase the number of visas available to Indian citizens to travel, work and study in the UK. Any travel restrictions remain a sore point. There are other low-hanging fruit too, including a long-standing dispute over Scotch whisky which the EU’s negotiators have failed to resolve in recent years.

Sealing a deal, even a provisional one, with one of the world’s fastest growing and dynamic economies, has long been a goal for the prime minister.

The fact that he might be able to declare victory in the battle over Scotch, and the tantalising prospect of agreeing a deal before the EU – which is also in parallel trade discussions with India – only added to the allure.

All of which is why Mr Johnson had been so determined to make India the destination for his first major foreign visit as prime minister. The trip had originally been slated for January, but was delayed as the UK faced a sharp increase in COVID cases.

It was rearranged for late April, with Mr Johnson due to fly out for meetings and negotiations on April 25.

The working plan was that Mr Johnson would be able to announce that early discussions were now under way about a deal – and that formal negotiations would begin in the autumn. There would be talk of more visas for Indian migrants and of resolving the long-standing impasse on Scotch.

A woman receives oxygen support for free outside a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India
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People have been forced to desperately source their own oxygen during India’s COVID surge

It was to be one of the early “wins” for the PM as he sought to underline the economic opportunities that lay outside the EU.

Yet as the date of the visit approached, the epidemiological data coming out of the Indian subcontinent began to deteriorate. Cases of COVID-19 had been rising fast throughout March, causing concern amid the global public health community.

Data on cases and deaths in India has never been as reliable as the numbers in Europe, with many epidemiologists suspecting vast undercounting of infections and deaths both last year and this. But even this likely undercounted data had begun to show a significant uptick in cases by late March.

By 2 April there was enough disquiet that the UK added the two countries neighbouring India on its east and west, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to its “red list”. Foreign travellers from countries on the list cannot travel to this country; UK and Irish citizens and residents can enter, but must stay in a government-assigned hotel for a 10 day quarantine period.

The goal of this policy is to prevent the entry to the country of any dangerous variants of the disease – and the South African and Brazilian variants were known to be circulating in these countries.

Yet even as Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the red list (the implementation took place on 9 April), questions were being asked about why India was not joining them.

In early April there were stories about the country’s cemeteries being overwhelmed. In the days following 2 April the number of new cases of COVID-19 rose beyond an average of 100,000 a day, and then over 200,000 a day. Still India remained off the red list.

It is at this period that the UK started to detect an influx of positive COVID-19 cases from India. According to data from Public Health England, of the 3,345 people arriving from India between 25 March and 7 April, 4.8% tested positive for COVID-19. At that stage, the percentage of people in England with COVID-19 was 0.1%.

It was also at this stage that Public Health England began to pick up arrivals of three Indian variants around the UK.

In particular, the most worrying of all those variants, B1.617.2, which is the variant which is spreading most quickly and has now claimed at least four lives, was first detected in tests carried out on travellers arriving from India on the week ending 29 March.

According to PHE data, at least 122 passengers arriving from Delhi and Mumbai between late March and 26 April were carrying this variant, now designated a “variant of concern”. All but a handful of these travellers would have been allowed, under the rules then in place, to leave the airport and travel home, where they were asked to self-isolate.

Even as cases of the new variant were arriving in the UK, concern was growing in Whitehall about why India had still been left off the red list. There is little publicly released data or methodology on most of these decisions, which are technically in the hands of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

It says it considers a variety of factors, including the prevalence of the disease in given countries and the quality of the infrastructure there. During this period many in the epidemiological community voiced concern about the omission. Some wondered why the government was taking so long.

Two weeks on from the decision to put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the list, there came an answer of sorts.

On the morning of 19 April, Downing Street announced that the prime minister’s trip to India was cancelled. A few hours after news of the cancellation of the prime ministerial visit, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that India would also be added to the red list.

By then – the afternoon of 19 April – the daily number of new cases in India had surpassed a quarter of a million. Within a couple of days the official numbers – themselves widely believed to be an undercount of reality – would mean this was officially the biggest outbreak in any country during the entire pandemic.

However, the UK’s decision to place India on the red list was not immediate. Instead, three full days and nights would go by before it would be implemented.

These delays are not unusual during the short history of COVID travel restrictions. Invariably when a country is added to the list it is given a period of time – often up to a week – for travellers to make the necessary plans in advance.

However, there is nothing to stop ministers imposing these restrictions far sooner. Indeed, when the hotel quarantine scheme was first announced, Downing Street briefed journalists that countries could be added to the list “at a few hours’ notice”. That did not happen with India.

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23 April: Travellers from India rush back to UK

In the following three days demand for flights between India and the UK shot through the roof.

Travel website Skyscanner reported a 250% leap in searches for flights from India to the UK. There are typically 30 such flights a week.

In those days, four airlines requested to operate an extra eight flights from India due to the surge in demand ahead of the implementation of the hotel quarantine. The requests were turned down, but thousands of passengers nonetheless travelled into the UK.

Even before this three-day period, the proportion of cases of B 1.617.2 imported from India had been on the rise. But between 4 April and 2 May, this variant rose from 4.9% of all cases detected among travellers, to 40.9%.

The single biggest increase in these weekly numbers was the week which included the three and a half days between the afternoon of 19 April and the early morning of 23 April.

It is worth underlining that it is still much too early to say whether the B 1.617.2 will indeed change the course of the pandemic in the UK. It is certainly spreading faster than any other variant of concern since the famous Kent variant which established itself as the dominant strain of the virus in the winter.

However it remains a small fraction of the total of cases, which are themselves small in comparison with recent months.

People line up outside a mobile vaccination centre, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bolton, Britain, May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
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Surge testing is under way in towns where the variant has taken hold

As of 5 May, the percentage of people in England with any variant of COVID-19 had dropped to just 0.07%, the lowest level since early September, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Hospitalisations, deaths and case numbers remain low.

However, cases are growing fast in a few areas where the Indian variant seems to have established itself, including Bolton, Blackburn and Leicester. By contrast, a cluster of cases in London seems to be under control.

It is too early to tell whether this presages the beginning of another spread throughout the country.

However, one factor is decisively different from the winter or indeed last year: the majority of UK citizens have now received a first dose of a vaccine, and the early evidence suggests, tentatively, that these vaccines provide adequate protection against this new variant.

Outside of India, there are few countries other than the UK that have quite so many confirmed cases of B1.617.2 – though this may owe itself partly to the fact that this country carries out more gene sequencing than any other country.

Even so, if the Indian variant establishes itself as the dominant strain in the UK, jeopardising the sacrifices and suffering during a third period of lockdown, the prime minister will come under increased scrutiny to answer why the decision was left so late to impose restrictions on travel from India, why travellers were given an extra three and a half days to come to the UK and why the rationale on which country is on or off these travel lists remains so murky.

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Israel-Gaza violence: Six Palestinians killed by Israeli army in the West Bank amid protests over violence | World News

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Six Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in the West Bank in a new wave of violence between the two sides.

Five were killed after protesters started throwing stones at Israeli troops, while the sixth was shot after ramming his car into a military post and then trying to stab a soldier, officials said.

Most of the deaths occurred after live fire by troops, they added.

Separately, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said seven had been killed and more than 500 injured throughout the territory.

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A Palestinian demonstrator hurls back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli forces in the West Bank

Dr Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician, told Sky News 60 similar protests were taking place across the West Bank on Friday.

Speaking in Ramallah, he described this week’s fighting as a “really unprecedented uprising” and said those killed were “just participating in protest and demonstrations”.

It comes after five days of airstrikes and rocket fire between Israel and Hamas that continued heavily through Friday.

Pic: AP
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Palestinian protesters throw tyres to block Israeli soldiers near Ramallah. Pic: AP
Pic: AP
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An Israeli bulldozer storms through roadblocks set up by protesters in the West Bank. Pic: AP

Key developments:

  • 122 Palestinians have died, including 31 children and 20 women, 900 people have been injured
  • Eight Israelis have died, including two children and a soldier
  • Israeli forces assembled 9,000 troops along the Gaza border, as well as infiltrating Hamas tunnels
  • Lebanon fired three rockets towards Israel into the Mediterranean Sea in a show of solidarity to Palestinians
  • Hamas have fired thousands of rockets into Israel, with hundreds falling short and landing in Gaza
  • Israel launched its heaviest bombardment yet on Friday, destroying buildings in Gaza City
  • Mob fighting continued between Arabs and Jews in ‘mixed’ Israeli towns, with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin describing it as “senseless civil war”

Amid the widespread West Bank protests, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) fired warning shots at a group of demonstrators who had crossed the border from Lebanon to take part in the rallies.

The army said that the group of youths damaged the border fence and set fire to the area before fleeing back to the Lebanese side.

One person was injured in the incident according to Al-Manar TV, which is run by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

Israeli soldiers assemble with their tanks at the Gaza border
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Israeli soldiers assemble with their tanks at the Gaza border

Lebanon had fired three rockets towards Israel late on Thursday, in an apparent show of solidarity to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but they landed in the Mediterranean Sea and caused no damage.

On Friday, a pre-dawn offensive saw Israeli forces use tanks, artillery units and 160 aircraft to unleash its heaviest attack on Gaza so far.

Smoke and flames rise during an Israeli air strike, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 14, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
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An explosion after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City
Israel insists that only militants in Gaza are targeted
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Buildings obliterated in Gaza City
The Israeli city of Lod was targeted in overnight strikes.
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The Israeli city of Lod after widespread rioting

A military spokesman said it was focusing on underground tunnels, which they believe are used by Hamas militants.

Hamas and smaller Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad, continued to launch rockets from the strip into Israel on Friday.

Dr Barghouti told Sky News correspondent Mark Stone in Ramallah that “Hamas and others are saying they are ready immediately for a ceasefire, but Israel is refusing”.

In a video statement on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I said we would extract a heavy price from Hamas.

“We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force.”

Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of an Israeli ground invasion, which would be a chance “to increase our catch” of Israeli soldiers.

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Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti told Sky News Palestinians have been protesting against Israel’s ‘system of discrimination and oppression’

Despite Egyptian and other international attempts at mediation, fighting is also ongoing in ‘mixed’ Israeli towns where Arabs and Jews live side-by-side.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described the rioting as “senseless civil war”.

French President Emmanuel Macron has also spoken to Mr Netanyahu urging a return to peace in the region.

Security sources said neither side appeared to be backing down, but a Palestinian official claimed negotiations intensified on Friday.

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