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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hong Kong press freedoms decline in 2015: report

Hong Kong (AFP)
Jan 30, 2016

Press freedom further declined in Hong Kong in 2015, driven by growing self-censorship and government interference as Beijing expands its influence over the city's boisterous media, a new report said Saturday.

The southern Chinese city prides itself on having relative freedom of expression compared with severely restricted reporting in mainland China, a legacy of Britain's handover of power in 1997.

"Press freedom in China, Hong Kong and Macau deteriorated further in 2015, as the Communist Party of China used every means at its disposal to control the media," the International Federation of Journalists' China Press Freedom Report said.

The report comes at a time when the fate of five booksellers, feared to have been detained in mainland China after disappearing late last year have put residents on edge with concerns the semi-autonomous city's freedoms are being eroded.

The five are from Hong Kong's Mighty Current publishing house, known for salacious titles critical of Beijing leaders.

"There has been strong outcry from the Hong Kong people, with many concerned about their personal safety and freedom of speech," the report said of sentiment after the disappearances.

The report also predicted China's ruling Communist Party will use resources to strengthen its influence in the city, which will hold elections for its legislature later in the year and for a new leader in 2017.

"As Hong Kong goes to elections next year the party is also using its considerable wealth to consolidate its influence over the region," it said.

Last year's report warned of "intervention behind the scenes" at a time when tensions remained high after more than two months of mass protests for fully free leadership elections in late 2014.

Ken Tsang, a pro-democracy activist who was allegedly beaten by police during the protests in an attack captured by television cameras and beamed around the world said the situation in Hong Kong was "terrible".

"Maybe we can say we have lots of freedoms but somebody is threatening you at your back, I think all Hong Kong citizens can feel that," Tsang told AFP after a court hearing on Thursday.

"The situation is not that good, we are terrified," he said.

A British colony until 1997, Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" deal that allows it far greater civil liberties than those enjoyed on the Chinese mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The report, presented at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club, also called the outlook in 2016 for the rest of mainland China "even worse".

Chinese authorities have detained and harassed reporters, used forced television confessions and other methods in limiting and influencing reporting, the report said.

Source: Sino Daily.
Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Hong_Kong_press_freedoms_decline_in_2015_report_999.html.

Polish minister urges stronger NATO presence in eastern Europe

Berlin (AFP)
Jan 28, 2016

Poland's defense minister said on Thursday that NATO's presence must be boosted in eastern Europe to counter the threat posed by Russia.

For Poland, "strengthening the eastern flank of NATO is a priority," Antoni Macierewicz said during a meeting with his German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen in Berlin.

"The issue of Russian aggression in Ukraine remains a very important issue" for Poland, he added, speaking as Warsaw prepares to host a NATO summit in July.

Poland has led demands for a permanent NATO presence in the former communist states once ruled from Moscow, but the alliance has been cautious for fear of being accused by Russia of breaching key treaties ending the Cold War.

These agreements ban NATO from setting up permanent military bases in eastern Europe but do allow the alliance to hold exercises and rotate limited forces through the area.

Polish President Andrzej Duda pressed NATO last week to establish "as permanent as possible" a presence in eastern Europe.

And Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski recently accused Berlin of countering a stronger NATO presence because it wanted to defend "Russian interests".

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo is due to visit Berlin on February 12.

Von der Leyen said July's NATO summit would "show that the alliance, given the changing security situation, must be able to act in a more agile, more flexible and faster way".

Since the Ukraine conflict, NATO has established a high-speed response force with forward command and logistic centers in its eastern members. NATO says these forces are very small and cannot be considered bases.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Polish_minister_urges_stronger_NATO_presence_in_eastern_Europe_999.html.

Thousands protest Italy plan to permit same-sex unions

January 30, 2016

ROME (AP) — Tens of thousands of people opposed to gay rights rallied Saturday in Rome's Circus Maximus against legislation that would permit civil unions for same-sex couples and grant them legal recognition as families.

Massimo Gandolfini, organizer of Saturday's "Family Day" protest, told the crowd that the legislation now in the Senate needs to be defeated. "A man and a woman form a marriage," Gandolfini said. "The others are alchemy."

The coalition government of Premier Matteo Renzi is pushing for the legislation granting civil unions, including the right of inheritance, to receive the pension of a deceased partner, or to make medical decisions about a partner in hospital. But the provision to permit homosexuals to adopt the biological children of their partner is the most hotly contested, even within the coalition.

Cabinet ministers expressed dissent during the rally. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano sent his support to the protesters via a Twitter message. Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti attended the protest, saying he supported the civil unions but not the so-called "step-child adoption" clause.

"I think this is a big step backward simply because it doesn't defend the rights of the weakest," he told Sky. "Children need to have a mother and a father." The Rome rally comes one week after tens of thousands of people rallied in nearly 100 cities across Italy in favor of the law. The crowd in the Circus Maximus, among them robed Catholic friars as well as politicians from across the spectrum, waved placards reading: "No to civil unions."

There was dispute about the number of people joining the protest Saturday. Gandolfini announced that two million people attended, but opposition groups put the numbers at closer to 300,000.

German military overstretched: commissioner

Berlin (AFP)
Jan 26, 2016

Germany's military is overstretched and underfunded as its troops are engaged in anti-jihadist missions from Syria and Afghanistan to Mali while also aiding refugees at home, the defense commissioner said Tuesday.

Plagued by a series of defense equipment failures, the military is "at a crossroads" and has reached "the limit of its capacity for interventions", said Hans-Peter Bartels.

Founded in 1955, the Bundeswehr had a peak force of 600,000 at the end of the Cold War when West Germany conscripted young men, and has since shrunk to a 177,000-strong volunteer force.

"The force is tired. Too much is lacking," said Bartels, a center-left Social Democrat lawmaker, demanding a significant budget increase in his annual report.

Systemic budget shortages now endanger training, military exercises and missions, while many barracks are crumbling, said Bartels, known in Berlin as "the soldiers' attorney".

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has pledged a greater role for Germany in international crisis fighting, marking a shift for post-World War II Germany which has long been reluctant to send troops abroad for combat missions.

German forces are currently engaged in the international alliance against the Islamic State group, including by arming and training Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and flying reconnaissance missions over Syria with Tornado jets.

German lawmakers in December authorized the deployment of up to 1,200 personnel for the operation, which also includes an A310 aerial refueling plane and a frigate to help guard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Mediterranean.

Berlin also plans to send an additional 500 troops to Mali to relieve French forces in the west African country, where Germany is already part of an EU military training mission.

In November, Germany also decided to increase to 980 its troop strength in Afghanistan to train and support national forces.

The engagements come as the German army has been plagued by as series of equipment failures.

It is phasing out the G36 assault rifle after reports it has failed to shoot straight at high temperatures.

Its Tornado surveillance aircraft cannot fly night missions because of a glare problem involving cockpit displays and pilots' goggles.

And across its fleet of fighter jets, helicopters and Transall C-160 transport aircraft, it is falling short of its target of 70 percent operational readiness, said the report.

Meanwhile, thousands of troops have been mobilized at home to house and support asylum-seekers, of whom a record 1.1 million arrived last year.

To help the military cope, parliament has approved raising its budget from 33 billion euros ($36 billion) in 2015 to 35 billion euros annually over four years.

However, Bartels argued this would equal only 1.07 percent of gross domestic product, far below the NATO-member goal of two percent of GDP.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/German_military_overstretched_commissioner_999.html.

Thousands march in Paris rain to protest state of emergency

January 30, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Thousands of people marched in the Paris rain on Saturday to denounce plans to renew France's state of emergency and revoke the French citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism.

Human rights groups, politicians and unions joined the march in the French capital, and in other demonstrations around France. The protests came just days before the Cabinet plans to review a measure on Wednesday to prolong the state of emergency, first imposed after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

The state of emergency gives more power to police and administrative authorities, allowing for searches without warrants, house arrests and other measures. "My France of liberties, where are you?" read one banner.

The parliament is expected to approve the prolongation of the exceptional measures in voting later this month. The current state of emergency expires Feb. 26. Jean-Baptiste Eyrault, of the Right to Housing movement, said: "Democracy is moving backwards ... at the expense of judges and the rule of law, freedom to demonstrate and (freedom) of expression."

Last week, a French high court upheld the measure, saying the danger "has not disappeared." Opponents of another plan to revoke citizenship for dual nationals convicted of terrorism claim the move would feed racism, creating a two-tier system of citizens. Many dual nationals are Muslims, and some feel they are blamed for attacks by Islamist extremists.

Green party lawmaker Noel Mamere, taking part in the march, said the state of emergency lays the foundations for "a society under surveillance." Christiane Taubira resigned suddenly last week as France's justice minister over her opposition to the plan, and as it became evident her views were on a collision course with those of President Francois Hollande.

France delivers 3 more Rafale fighters to Egypt

Cairo (AFP)
Jan 28, 2016

Egypt was to receive three Rafale fighters from France on Thursday, a French embassy official said, six months after Paris delivered the first three of a consignment of 24 of the warplanes.

The delivery is part of a 5.2 billion-euro ($5.6 billion) deal Cairo signed with Paris in February 2015 to purchase 24 Rafale multi-role combat jets, a frigate and missiles.

The sale of Rafales to Egypt was the first such export order for French manufacturer Dassault Aviation.

In July, France also delivered a 6,000-tonne multi-mission frigate to Cairo as Egypt seeks to boost its military capability in the face of instability in Libya and a jihadist insurgency in its Sinai Peninsula.

In October, the two countries signed another contract to buy two French Mistral warships, whose sale to Russia was cancelled by Paris because of the Ukraine crisis...

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/France_delivers_3_more_Rafale_fighters_to_Egypt_999.html.

Car-making deals, protests greet Iranian president in Paris

January 28, 2016

PARIS (AP) — France's government welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday with promises of a new beginning in an old relationship, starting with investments to boost Iran's flagging economy that has been crippled by decades of sanctions.

"It's a new chapter of our relationship," French president Francois Hollande said in a joint news conference following a two-hour meeting with Rouhani at the Elysee palace. "I want that relationship to be useful, useful to both countries, useful to the (Middle East) region affected by wars, crises and tragedies."

Hollande added that he raised the issue of human rights and freedom during the meeting. France sees the visit also as an opportunity to draw Iran into a role of crisis-solving, notably in Syria's civil war where Iran actively supports the government of President Bashar Assad, which Paris firmly opposes.

"We must fight terrorism" in Syria and Iraq, Rouhani said during the joint conference. "We must help the Syrian people so that the Syrian people can build a sustainable future for the country," he said.

Rouhani decried the sanctions his country was previously under, saying history has shown that they "never worked." He said the nuclear deal that led to the lifting of sanctions this month can serve as a model for solutions in other crises, notably in the Middle East.

A total of 20 agreements were signed after Rouhani's meeting with Hollande. Iran Air signed a deal to buy 118 aircraft from Airbus, valued at 22.8 billion euros ($25 billion). PSA Peugeot Citroen also announced a joint venture with Iran Khodro to produce latest-generation vehicles in Tehran by the end of 2017.

French and Iranian companies also signed agreements in the sectors of air and maritime transport, airports, health and agriculture. Oil and gas company Total inked a deal with the National Iranian Oil Company to purchase crude oil.

The French presidency said the total amount of the deals signed during Rouhani's visit, including Airbus, could reach up to 30 billion euros ($32.8 billion). The historic outreach trip did face some strains, however, in a reminder of the complexities confronting all sides despite the French welcome mat.

France has asked its European Union partners to consider new sanctions on Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests, officials told The Associated Press. That highlights continued suspicions between Iran and the West.

Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, with headquarters outside Paris, held a demonstration, and 61 lawmakers signed an open letter to Hollande condemning Iran's human rights record, with executions on the rise, and what it called its "strategy of chaos" in the Middle East.

An activist hung from a fake noose off a Paris bridge next to a huge banner reading "Welcome Rouhani, Executioner of Freedom." At the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Rouhani took digs at the West, notably regarding the migrant crisis. He pointed out that Europe is complaining about the number of refugees arriving on its territory while Iran is hosting 3 million Afghans "without complaining."

Rouhani, who arrived in France from Italy, was originally scheduled to visit Paris in November, but the trip was called off after Islamic extremists carried out attacks around Paris that killed 130 people.

Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris, Danica Kirka in London, Raf Casert in Brussels and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.

Mass expulsions ahead for Europe as migrant crisis grows

January 28, 2016

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Dazzled by an unprecedented wave of migration, Sweden on Thursday put into words an uncomfortable reality for Europe: If the continent isn't going to welcome more than 1 million people a year, it will have to deport large numbers of them to countries plagued by social unrest and abject poverty.

Interior Minister Anders Ygeman said Sweden could send back 60,000-80,000 asylum seekers in the coming years. Even in a country with a long history of immigration, that would be a scale of expulsions unseen before.

"The first step is to ensure voluntary returns," Ygeman told Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri. "But if we don't succeed, we need to have returns by coercion." The coercive part is where it gets uncomfortable. Packing unwilling migrants, even entire families, onto chartered airplanes bound for the Balkans, the Middle East or Africa evokes images that clash with Europe's humanitarian ideals.

But the sharp rise of people seeking asylum in Europe last year almost certainly will also lead to much higher numbers of rejections and deportations. European Union officials have urged member countries to quickly send back those who don't qualify for asylum so that Europe's welcome can be focused on those who do, such as people fleeing the war in Syria.

"People who do not have a right to stay in the European Union need to be returned home," said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the EU's executive Commission. "This is a matter of credibility that we do return these people, because you don't want to give the impression of course that Europe is an open door," she said.

EU statistics show most of those rejected come from the Balkans including Albania and Kosovo, some of Europe's poorest countries. Many applicants running away from poverty in West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh also are turned away. Even people from unstable countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia can't count on getting asylum unless they can prove they, personally, face grave risks at home.

Frans Timmermans, the Commission's vice president, told Dutch TV station NOS this week that the majority of people seeking asylum in Europe are not refugees. "More than half, 60 percent, should have to return much more quickly. If we start with doing that, it would already make a huge difference," he said.

Sending them back is easier said than done. In 2014, EU nations returned less than 40 percent of the people who were ordered to be deported. Sometimes those seeking asylum go into hiding after receiving a negative decision. Sometimes their native country doesn't want them back.

EU countries, including Sweden and Germany, have had some success sending people back to the Balkans on chartered flights. Of the 37,000 who returned from Germany on their own accord last year, all but about 5,000 were from the Balkans.

"It's been more difficult with Iraq and Afghanistan," said Mikael Ribbenvik, director of operations at the Swedish Migration Agency. "The returns have worked during some periods, and not so well during others."

One of the biggest obstacles to sending people back is to obtain travel documents from their home countries. People routinely lose or even destroy their travel papers coming to Europe, creating confusion about where they are from.

"Most countries in the world don't accept someone if cannot be proved that it's one of their citizens," Ribbenvik said. Sweden has urged the EU and its Frontex border agency to help establish return agreements with the countries of origin.

Frontex's budget for deporting people was significantly increased this year, allowing it to coordinate more flights and help countries prepare their own. Under U.N. rules, countries are supposed to offer protection to refugees fleeing war and persecution. But some European countries also offer protection to people deemed at risk of torture or the death penalty or who are suffering from an exceptionally serious disease.

"Obviously, there is currently a very heated debate in Europe on this issue," said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general. "Our message continues to be the same — that refugees and migrants need to be treated with compassion, dignity and with full respect of their rights for those who are refugees."

Even for those who get a negative decision within months, it can take years before all appeals are exhausted and they are ordered to leave. Jawad Aref Hashemi, a 43-year-old Afghan who lived in Iran before traveling to Denmark to seek asylum, suggested he won't accept no for an answer.

"If people are sent home, they will protest. How will they send us home? In big cars? We are not animals," he said. Abdi Xuseen, a 28-year-old Somali who also sought asylum in Denmark, said "people will hide" or go on hunger strikes if they are forced to leave Europe.

Statistics from the Swedish Migration Agency show 127,000 people have been ordered to leave the country since 2010. About 60,000 did so voluntarily, while 26,000 were deported with coercion and 40,000 absconded.

Authorities have little information on the latter group. Some are believed to have left the country, while others remain in Sweden illegally, at risk of being exploited in a black market economy. "There has to be noticeable consequences for companies that use illegal labor," Ygeman told Dagens Industri. "If there's a decent illegal labor market the incentive to stay in Sweden will be strong."

More than 160,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden last year, the highest number in Europe relative to population size. Ygeman's estimate that 60,000-80,000 of them will have to leave was based on the current rejection rate of about 45 percent.

Meanwhile, the stream of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe continues. Greece's coast guard said 25 people died, including 10 children, when a migrant boat sank Thursday off Samos, an island near the Turkish coast.

Romanian rescuers dropped off 119 African migrants in Italy after recusing them from an inflatable dingy. The migrants were dehydrated and showed signs of hypothermia, the Romanian border police said.

Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, David Rising in Berlin, Lorne Cooke in Brussels and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.

Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine to launch joint brigade in 2017

Warsaw (AFP)
Jan 25, 2016

Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine on Monday said a joint brigade of 4,000 troops would be operational next year, as the region maintains a wary eye on Russia and its role in the Ukraine conflict.

"The multinational brigade is a sign, symbol and very clear signal to anyone who would want to undermine peace in Europe," Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said in a ministry statement.

While Lithuania and Poland are NATO and EU members, Ukraine is not but has been a part of the defense alliance's Partnership for Peace eastern outreach program since 1994.

Macierewicz spoke after meeting with his counterparts from Lithuania and Ukraine, Juozas Olekas and Stepan Poltorak respectively, in the eastern Polish city of Lublin.

"We see this brigade as a driving force that will improve our army," Poltorak said, quoted by the Polish news agency PAP.

He added that "the brigade will be fully operational in 2017", while the Polish ministry statement said the military unit would "reach its full combat capability in January 2017".

The three countries signed an agreement in September 2014 to form the so-called Litpolukrbrig brigade, which will mainly take part in peacekeeping operations.

The brigade has been in the works since 2007, but it is being put into action at a time of anxiety among Eastern European states once controlled by Moscow.

Poland and the three Baltic states, which include Lithuania, have been on edge since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.

The Baltic trio and Poland, which will host a NATO summit in July, have called on the Western defense alliance to reinforce its presence in the region because of their concern over Russia.

The brigade troops will be deployed in their own countries and will join forces during exercises and joint operations. The headquarters will be in Lublin.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Lithuania_Poland_Ukraine_to_launch_joint_brigade_in_2017_999.html.

Cuban leader Raul Castro to France for historic state visit

January 29, 2016

PARIS (AP) — Raul Castro is coming to France for the first-ever state visit of a Cuban president to the land of wine and gastronomy, a trip that could boost French investments and promote stronger economic, cultural and tourist ties between Paris and Havana.

Castro is to arrive Saturday for the private part of his trip ahead of his official visit on Monday and Tuesday, landing only eight months after French Socialist President Francois Hollande's one-day stop in Havana. The two leaders are to have dinner at the Elysee palace on Monday night.

"This visit marks a new step in the development of a stronger relationship between the two countries," the French presidency said. Castro's visit also comes two months after the Paris Club of creditor countries forgave $8.5 billion of overdue Cuban interest payments in exchange for Cuba's promise to pay off $2.6 billion in loans from developed countries over the next year and a half.

France, to which Cuba owed $4 billion in overdue loans, led the creditors' negotiations. The deal was hailed by both sides as an essential step in clearing the path for Cuba to regain access to international credit that had been long unavailable due to the overdue loans.

The U.S. maintains an economic embargo against Cuba and is not among the creditor nations. France hopes to see some business partnerships flourish in Cuba in tourism, transport and environmental industries in the wake of the normalization of the country's ties with the U.S.

"The agreement at the Paris Club is paving the way for a bilateral agreement with France" to be signed Monday, a top French official said Friday. Cuba's remaining debt to France amounts to $390 million (360 million euros). With this new bilateral deal, part of the money would be reinvested in development projects on the island, another French diplomat said.

The two countries are expected to announce the opening of the French Agency of Development's office in Havana. The agency is a specialized financial institution that can make loans to public and private actors to support bilateral development projects.

The two French officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose any details ahead of the visit. Cuba's debt to France has not been honored since the 1980s, when Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and his wife Danielle openly supported the Cuban government.

France has called for the lifting of the U.S. embargo since 1991. Former Cuba President Fidel Castro, brother of Raul, came to Paris on private visit in 1995 and met with Mitterrand at the Elysee palace.

Some commercial deals are expected to be signed on the sidelines of Raul Castro's visit. French companies already working with Cuba — such as Pernod Ricard beverages, the hotel company Accor, the Bouygues construction group and the shipping group CMA CGM — could get new development opportunities.

Castro's trip to Paris comes only few days after the visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — another effort by French government to boost investments in an economy crippled by decades of sanctions until the Tehran nuclear deal last year.

Michael Weissenstein contributed to the story from Havana.

Israel to upgrade F-15I Ra'am fleet

Tel Aviv, Israel (UPI)
Jan 25, 2016

The Israeli Air Force is planning upgrades for its Boeing F-15I fleet while also moving forward with procuring Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft.

Upgrades will include structural improvements as well as the installation of a new advanced radar system. Flight Global reports Israel reportedly favors the Raytheon APG-82(V)1 active electronically scanned array radar used by the United States, though the selection process is ongoing.

The planned upgrades come as work begins on Israel's first F-35 multirole fighter. Lockheed Martin is expected to complete the jet in June 2016.

Israel was the first country to select the F-35 through the U.S. government's Foreign Military Sales program in October 2010, though Israeli officials maintain the F-15I is still the strategic jet of the air force.

"There is a reason it hasn't stopped flying and conducting missions after 18 years," Lt. Col. Yiftach said. "As an aircraft that only operates with one squadron, it has every extreme ability we would want our aircraft to have."

The F-15I Ra'am is the IAF's air-to-ground variant of the F-15 superiority fighter. Twenty-five of the fighters are in service with the IAF's Hammers Squadron.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Israel_to_upgrade_F-15I_Raam_fleet_999.html.

Hubble Finds Misbehaving Spiral

Baltimore MD (SPX)
Jan 31, 2016

Despite its unassuming appearance, the edge-on spiral galaxy captured in the left half of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is actually quite remarkable.

Located about one billion light-years away in the constellation of Eridanus, this striking galaxy - known as LO95 0313-192 - has a spiral shape similar to that of the Milky Way. It has a large central bulge, and arms speckled with brightly glowing gas mottled by thick lanes of dark dust.

Its companion, sitting in the right of the frame, is known rather unpoetically as [LOY2001] J031549.8-190623.

Jets, outbursts of superheated gas moving at close to the speed of light, have long been associated with the cores of giant elliptical galaxies, and galaxies in the process of merging.

However, in an unexpected discovery, astronomers found LO95 0313-192, even though it is a spiral galaxy, to have intense radio jets spewing out from its center. The galaxy appears to have two more regions that are also strongly emitting in the radio part of the spectrum, making it even rarer still.

The discovery of these giant jets in 2003 has been followed by the unearthing of a further three spiral galaxies containing radio-emitting jets in recent years.

This growing class of unusual spirals continues to raise significant questions about how jets are produced within galaxies, and how they are thrown out into the cosmos.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Hubble_Finds_Misbehaving_Spiral_999.html.

Opportunity Reaches 12 Years on Mars!

Pasadena CA (JPL)
Jan 31 2016

Opportunity is exploring 'Marathon Valley' on the rim of Endeavor crater. The rover is up on north-facing slopes for improved solar array energy production.

The rover is conducting an in-situ (contact) science campaign on the surface target 'Joseph Collin' (informally named for members of the Lewis and Clark expedition).

The target appears as a curious, unconsolidated pile of coarse, dark grains. On Sol 4263 (Jan. 20, 2016), Opportunity began two sols of investigation using the robotic arm instruments. On each sol, extensive Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaics were collected.

Each was followed with a unique placement of the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) for elemental identification. Over the next 3 days (sols), the rover attitude was updated and a series of Panoramic Camera (Pancam) and Navigation Camera (Navcam) panoramas were collected.

On Sol 4268 (Jan. 25, 2016), the final work on this in-situ target was completed with the raising of the robotic arm off the target and the collection of some documentary imagery. The rover is now set to drive away from this site towards new targets up-slope from the current location.

As of Sol 4268 (Jan. 25, 2016), the solar array energy production was 469 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.478 and a solar array dust factor of 0.691.

Total odometry is 26.50 miles (42.65 kilometers), more than a marathon.

Source: Mars Daily.
Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Opportunity_Reaches_12_Years_on_Mars!_999.html.

Giant gas cloud boomeranging back into Milky Way

Notre Dame IN (SPX)
Jan 29, 2016

Since astronomers discovered the Smith Cloud, a giant gas cloud plummeting toward the Milky Way, they have been unable to determine its composition, which would hold clues as to its origin. University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Nicolas Lehner and his collaborators have now determined that the cloud contains elements similar to our sun, which means the cloud originated in the Milky Way's outer edges and not in intergalactic space as some have speculated.

The Smith Cloud, discovered in the 1960s, is the only high-velocity cloud in the galaxy for which its orbit is well-determined, thanks in particular to studies with radio telescopes like the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). The starless gas cloud is traveling at nearly 700,000 miles per hour and is expected to crash into the Milky Way disk in 30 million years. If it were visible, the Smith Cloud would have an apparent size of about 30 times the diameter of the moon from tip to tail.

Astronomers long thought that the Smith Cloud might be some starless galaxy or gas falling into the Milky Way from intergalactic space. If that were the case, the cloud composition would be mainly hydrogen and helium, not the heavier elements made by stars.

The team used Hubble to determine for the first time the amount of heavier elements relative to hydrogen in the Smith Cloud. Using Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, the researchers observed the ultraviolet light from the bright cores of three active galaxies that reside billions of light-years beyond the cloud.

The Smith Cloud absorbs some of its light in very small wavelength range, and by measuring the dip in brightness of these galaxies behind the cloud, the chemical makeup of the cloud can be estimated.

The researchers looked specifically for absorption from the sulfur element, which is a good gauge of how many heavier elements reside in the cloud. "By measuring sulfur, you can learn how enriched in sulfur atoms the cloud is compared to the Sun," said team leader Andrew Fox of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

The team then compared Hubble's sulfur measurements to hydrogen measurements made by the GBT.

The astronomers found that the Smith Cloud is as rich in sulfur as the Milky Way's outer disk, a region about 40,000 light-years from the galaxy's center and about 15,000 light-years farther out than our sun and solar system are. This means that it was polluted by material from stars.

This would not happen if it were pristine hydrogen from outside the galaxy. Instead, the cloud appears to have had an intimate relationship with the Milky Way, but was somehow ejected from the outer Milky Way disk about 70 million years ago and is now boomeranging back onto its disk.

Astronomers believe the Smith Cloud, has enough gas to generate two million suns when it eventually hits the Milky Way disk. "We have found several massive gas clouds in the Milky Way halo that may serve as future fuel for star formation in its disk, but, for most of them, their origins remain a mystery.

The Smith Cloud is certainly one of the best examples that shows that recycled gas is an important mechanism in the evolution of galaxies," said Lehner.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Giant_gas_cloud_boomeranging_back_into_Milky_Way_999.html.

Moon was produced by a head-on collision between Earth and a forming planet

Los Angeles CA (SPX)
Jan 29, 2016

The moon was formed by a violent, head-on collision between the early Earth and a "planetary embryo" called Theia approximately 100 million years after the Earth formed, UCLA geochemists and colleagues report.

Scientists had already known about this high-speed crash, which occurred almost 4.5 billion years ago, but many thought the Earth collided with Theia (pronounced THAY-eh) at an angle of 45 degrees or more - a powerful side-swipe. New evidence reported Jan. 29 in the journal Science substantially strengthens the case for a head-on assault.

The researchers analyzed seven rocks brought to the Earth from the moon by the Apollo 12, 15 and 17 missions, as well as six volcanic rocks from the Earth's mantle - five from Hawaii and one from Arizona.

The key to reconstructing the giant impact was a chemical signature revealed in the rocks' oxygen atoms. (Oxygen makes up 90 percent of rocks' volume and 50 percent of their weight.) More than 99.9 percent of Earth's oxygen is O-16, so called because each atom contains eight protons and eight neutrons.

But there also are small quantities of heavier oxygen isotopes: O-17, which have one extra neutron, and O-18, which have two extra neutrons. Earth, Mars and other planetary bodies in our solar system each has a unique ratio of O-17 to O-16 - each one a distinctive "fingerprint."

In 2014, a team of German scientists reported in Science that the moon also has its own unique ratio of oxygen isotopes, different from Earth's. The new research finds that is not the case.

"We don't see any difference between the Earth's and the moon's oxygen isotopes; they're indistinguishable," said Edward Young, lead author of the new study and a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry.

Young's research team used state-of-the-art technology and techniques to make extraordinarily precise and careful measurements, and verified them with UCLA's new mass spectrometer.

The fact that oxygen in rocks on the Earth and our moon share chemical signatures was very telling, Young said. Had Earth and Theia collided in a glancing side blow, the vast majority of the moon would have been made mainly of Theia, and the Earth and moon should have different oxygen isotopes. A head-on collision, however, likely would have resulted in similar chemical composition of both Earth and the moon.

"Theia was thoroughly mixed into both the Earth and the moon, and evenly dispersed between them," Young said. "This explains why we don't see a different signature of Theia in the moon versus the Earth."

Theia, which did not survive the collision (except that it now makes up large parts of Earth and the moon) was growing and probably would have become a planet if the crash had not occurred, Young said. Young and some other scientists believe the planet was approximately the same size as the Earth; others believe it was smaller, perhaps more similar in size to Mars.

Another interesting question is whether the collision with Theia removed any water that the early Earth may have contained. After the collision - perhaps tens of millions of year later - small asteroids likely hit the Earth, including ones that may have been rich in water, Young said. Collisions of growing bodies occurred very frequently back then, he said, although Mars avoided large collisions.

A head-on collision was initially proposed in 2012 by Matija ?uk, now a research scientist with the SETI Institute, and Sarah Stewart, now a professor at UC Davis; and, separately during the same year by Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Moon_was_produced_by_a_head_on_collision_between_Earth_and_a_forming_planet_999.html.