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Europe’s space leaders seek to boost sector in light of Brexit, COVID and international competition

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The European Space Conference in Brussels takes place this week, so Euronews spoke to European Space Agency Director General Jan Wörner about the challenges the sector faces in 2021.

Brexit troubles Europe’s space sector

Brexit is a headache for the European space sector, as the UK is a permanent and committed member of ESA, but is now outside the EU. Leaving the EU has made everything more complicated: under the terms of the agreement signed in December 2020 the UK can continue to be part of the Copernicus Earth observation programme at least until 2028, as both the EU and ESA contribute funding to it. However, it loses access to high-quality positioning from the EU’s Galileo satellites, and is now out of EGNOS. The British stop being a full member of the European space debris tracking system, but still have access to it as a non-EU partner.

There are outstanding questions over the role of British companies in building spacecraft for EU-related projects. ESA DG Jan Wörner told Euronews he believes ‘it is possible to have a solution’, given that non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway are able to take part in the construction of satellites under Brussels contracts. However, the sheer size of the UK space sector is an issue. “Some fear in Brussels that if a big member state is doing something different, then this could be a magnet for other countries to do the same,” admits Wörner.

EU project to beam internet to all

A hot topic around the virtual and real water coolers at the Brussels Space Conference will be the Commission’s new plans to create a network of low-Earth orbiting internet satellites, which should offer broadband, 5G and more to rural communities across the bloc.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, with a broad consortium of space industry players comprising Airbus, SES, Arianespace, Eutelsat, OHB, Orange, Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space.

The vision is similar to the Starlink and OneWeb systems, both of which have already launched satellites aimed at offering a new kind of holy grail in communications, a low-flying communications network from orbit which allows everyone, at least in theory, to enjoy high-speed connectivity.

The European version would be a public-private partnership, and initial work will begin this year.

Defining ESA-EU relations

The EU’s enthusiasm for space is clear: just before Christmas the European Commission and Parliament approved a 14.8 billion euro budget for EU space activity. The funding for the period 2021 to 2027 includes 9 billion for Galileo and 5.4 billion for Copernicus.

It’s part of a continued and rising commitment to developing Europe’s space sector, but it does beg the question of just how close ESA and the EC would like to become? For Wörner, moving further in the EU’s direction is a ‘political decision’ but not one that necessarily fits with ESA’s principals on return on investment, which see agency member states receiving reciprocal industrial contracts which are very close in size to their level of investment in a given programme. “The link between what ESA is doing and what states want to happen is very close, and a really big advantage,” he says.

The current director of Earth Observation at ESA, Josef Aschbacher, has said that defining the relationship between the two organisations is one of his main objectives when he replaces Wörner in July 2021.

Competition from US and China

A key focus of the Brussels Space Conference is the desire for Europe to develop a vibrant and independent private space sector. So far, major initiatives like Galileo and Copernicus have spawned a large number of small and specialist space startups selling value-added services based on the free data from these two projects. However, the old continent has so far struggled to create the kind of attention-grabbing commercial space firms like SpaceX and Planet Labs that NASA has helped foster in the US.

Then, there’s the speedy growth and unbridled ambition of the Chinese to take into account. When Jan Wörner first came to his job in 2015 he made a media splash with his dreams of creating a ‘village on the Moon’. In late 2020, however, he could only watch in awe as the Chinese sent a robotic mission to fetch samples from the Moon. It’s something only the Soviet Union and the United States have achieved before.

“My first thought was congratulations, of course,” he says, “but I quickly thought ‘ah, they are fast, and we should be faster'”. He told Euronews he hopes the joint ESA-NASA Mars Sample Return mission will be even more inspiring and impressive and give Europe’s exploration programme a much-needed boost in publicity.

There are areas where ESA is a leader, particularly in Earth observation thanks to the Sentinel fleet. Catching space debris and working out how to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth are another two of the growth areas for public and private initiatives in Europe. ESA is also pushing ahead with its Space Rider vehicle, an un-crewed flying machine which resembles a mini-Shuttle, and could offer commercial and institutional clients a relatively low-cost means of reaching orbit, and returning home afterwards.

However, the new Ariane 6 rocket continues to face delays. Much vaunted as a flexible new vehicle to compete in this highly-competitive market, the replacement for the heavy-lift Ariane 5 is now only due to launch in the second quarter of 2022. Arianespace has called on European governments to step up their commitment to launchers to better compete with SpaceX, which has grown rapidly on the basis of lucrative American government launch contracts.

Read from source: https://www.euronews.com/2021/01/11/europe-s-space-leaders-seek-to-boost-sector-in-light-of-brexit-covid-and-international-com

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China to test thousands of Wuhan blood samples in Covid-19 probe

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CNNChina is preparing to test tens of thousands of blood bank samples from the city of Wuhan as part of a probe into the origins of Covid-19, according to a Chinese official. The move comes amid increasing calls for transparency over the emergence of the virus.

The store of up to 200,000 samples, including those from the closing months of 2019 were pinpointed in February this year by the World Health Organization’s panel of investigators as a possible source of key information that could help determine when and where the virus first crossed into humans.
The samples are kept in the Wuhan Blood Center, and are thought to span 2019, providing real-time tissue samples from a wide swathe of the population in the Chinese city where SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have first infected humans.
The blood bank samples have been retained for two years, Chinese officials have said, in case they are needed as evidence in any lawsuits related to the blood donations they are from.
That two-year waiting period will soon expire for the key months of October and November 2019, when most experts think the virus could first have infected humans. An official from China’s National Health Commission, told CNN preparation for testing is currently underway, and confirmed testing would happen once the two-year limit was reached.
“This provides the closest in the world we’ve seen of real time samples to help us understand the timing of the outbreak event,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
They “absolutely will contain vital clues,” said Maureen Miller, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. She urged China to permit foreign experts to observe the process. “No one will believe any results that China reports unless there are qualified observers at the very least,” she said.
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The head of the Chinese team working on the WHO investigation, Liang Wannian, first said in a July news conference that China would test the samples, adding once the Chinese experts “have the results, they will deliver them to both the Chinese and foreign expert teams.”
Liang said the samples came from the opening tube of a donor blood pouch, sealed shut and then stored, and Chinese experts had “made several assessments and evaluations on the testing methods and action plan, which will be implemented after the expiry” of the two-year limit.
The samples, if stored correctly, could contain crucial signs of the first antibodies made by humans against the disease, experts said.
Liang said in July that while the first reported case was in Wuhan on December 8, “our research and the previous related research papers of Chinese scientists fully suggest … December 8 is probably not the primary case. There might be other cases that occurred before.”
Dr. William Schaffner, from the Vanderbilt University Department of Medicine’s infectious disease division, said the samples presented a “fascinating opportunity. You would like to go back to find out exactly during which months this this virus started to leave fingerprints in the human population in China.”
The samples might even indicate who was first infected, where, and their age and occupation, Miller added.
“It is common practice to de-identify the samples,” she said. “So you could strip it down to basic demographics, age, gender neighborhood where they lived. All of those data will be available.”
Schaffner suggested the samples could be brought to Geneva, or another neutral destination, to permit WHO experts to take part in the testing.
He said two possible issues with the samples could be “the integrity of the blood samples — ensuring they had not been recently created,” but also how representative of the population as a whole the blood donors were. Miller said many samples would most likely have been taken from healthy individuals “so they’ll represent asymptomatic cases. And as we’ve learned over the course of the pandemic, asymptomatic cases fuel the pandemic.”
Huang said it was unclear to “what extent the outside world would trust the findings as credible or convincing,” and the testing marked an opportunity for China to “tell the world that they are serious about depoliticizing the origins probe.”
How China pushes conspiracy theory on Covid-19 origin 04:04
The Biden administration conducted a 90-day review of the intelligence over how the virus originated, yet an unclassified report had officials still considering both natural transmission from animal to humans and a lab leak as plausible theories, yet unable to determine which was the more likely.
President Joe Biden, on receiving a classified version of the report, said: “Critical information about the origins of this pandemic exists in the People’s Republic of China, yet from the beginning, government officials in China have worked to prevent international investigators and members of the global public health community from accessing it.”
China has insisted it has been transparent and helpful to the WHO probe, and in its most recent statement about the theory the virus leaked from a laboratory, pointed toward unproven claims about Fort Detrick, US laboratory in Maryland, and the need to examine its recent past

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Benjamin Netanyahu calls to block Israel’s newly formed coalition

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Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has lashed out at a newly agreed coalition which looks set to remove him from power after 12 years as prime minister.

Mr Netanyahu called on right-wing members of parliament to block the coalition from taking office.

Eight opposition parties reached an agreement to work together to form a new government late on Wednesday.

But the group, from across Israel’s political spectrum, still needs parliamentary backing to take office.

No date has so far been set for such a vote in the Knesset (parliament). But it is expected to take place next week at the latest, and there is still a chance this newly formed coalition could be upended by defections.

In his first comments since the coalition was announced, Mr Netanyahu urged members of the Knesset “elected by votes from the right” to oppose the coalition.

In a post on Twitter, he criticised them as “left-wing” and “dangerous”. He has previously called the proposed new government the “fraud of the century”, saying it endangered the state and people of Israel.

Observers have already noted that Mr Netanyahu – who failed to form his own coalition despite his Likud party winning the most seats in the March vote – is likely to try to prevent the group getting the support it needs.

News of a fresh coalition emerged late on Wednesday, when Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, called President Reuven Rivlin to let him know that agreement had been reached.

He pledged to form a government which would “work in the service of all Israeli citizens… respect its opponents and do everything in its power to unite and connect all parts of Israeli society”.

However, Mr Lapid will not become prime minister immediately. Under a rotation arrangement, the head of the right-wing Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, would serve as prime minister first before handing over to Mr Lapid in August 2023.

The coalition members span the full spectrum of Israeli politics with little in common apart from their plan to replace Mr Netanyahu. For the first time in decades, the government will include an Israeli Arab party.

An image carried on Israeli media showed Mr Lapid, Mr Bennett and Mansour Abbas, leader of the Arab Islamist Raam party, signing the agreement, a deal many thought impossible.

The other five parties included in the agreement are:

  • Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) (centrist) – led by Benny Gantz (eight)
  • Israel Beiteinu (centre-right to right-wing nationalist) – led by Avigdor Lieberman (seven)
  • Labor (social-democratic) – led by Merav Michaeli (seven)
  • New Hope (centre-right to right-wing)- led by Gideon Sa’ar (six)
  • Meretz (left-wing, social-democratic) – led by Nitzan Horowitz (six)

If the coalition fails to win the support of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, there is a risk of a fifth election in two years. All eight parties were needed to secure the 61-seat majority.

Reaction to the agreement has been mixed. According to news agency AFP, other parties representing Israeli Arabs – who make up 20% of the population – have said they will oppose a government led by Mr Bennett, who rejects the concept of a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, right-wing politicians have also voiced concerns. “The left is celebrating but it is a very sad day for the State of Israel,” Miki Zohar, a prominent Likud member wrote on Twitter, saying the right-wing parties in the coalition “should be ashamed”.

But elsewhere there was jubilation. Protesters who had been demanding Mr Netanyahu’s resignation danced in the street.

Some were just relieved at the prospect of an end to the political turmoil which has seen Israel hold four elections in just two years as politicians struggled to find someone to unite behind.

“I think that the political situation has been deadlocked for too long,” protester Zvi Yosef told Reuters news agency. “We have to try something new, even though it’s a little bit scary and there’s a lot of unknowns. But at the moment, I don’t see any other option.”

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-57340973

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Federation of African Journalists “dismayed” by UAE attempts to manipulate African Journalists

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Agencies – Federation of African Journalists accused UAE of “attempts” to manipulate the work of African Journalists. During a conference held this week, the federation issued an urgent resolution which attacked United Arab Emirates due to its efforts to affect the work of the federation and African journalists.

The press release said, “We, the delegates attending the African Journalists Leaders’ Conference from five regions of the African Continent, being held in Accra, Ghana, from 1st to 2nd June 2021, under the auspices of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) and hosted by the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA)”

The press release announced a number of points stating:

“With dismay recent attempts by external elements from the United Arab Emirates who deliberately tried to manipulate journalists’ organisations in Africa to issue public statements or campaign against 2022 FIFA World Cup, that will be hosted by the State of Qatar.”said the statement

The organisation expressed serious concerns about how UAE is trying to push for political disputes and drag African journalists into activities beyond their primary interests, scope and mandate.

It also added that “Serious challenges facing journalists in Africa in covering adequately global events such as the World Cup.”

The federation rejected what it described as “despicable attempts”to use and manipulate African journalists and their organisations as tools to challenge the organisation of 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

It reiterated its full support of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) to the position taken by the International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC) about the labour rights situation in Qatar and note the unparalleled progress so far made.

It has also demanded that African jour alista have full access to 2022 FIFA 2022 World Cup so they inform African peoples about these global soccer events.

It has called upon the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the qualifying National teams from Africa to be vigilant about these manipulative attempts and ensure Africa’s dignified and prominent participation in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The statement made an appeal to CAF and FIFA to investigate and penalize the people and forces behind this unprecedented interference in global soccer events which has the potential to compromise African journalists reporting on the world’s biggest football event.

It also added that, “Mandate the Steering Committee of FAJ to develop a close working relationship with CAF to facilitate and advance the work and interests of African journalists.”

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