It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

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As members of an elite band of cosmic explorers, they are among the few to have gone beyond the final frontier and looked down on the Earth from space.

Now, inspired by the unique perspective they gained of their home planet – and armed with startling new data about the scale of the threat it faces from asteroid strikes – a group of former Nasa astronauts are on an extraordinary mission to save the world.

Fourteen months after an asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on a scale equivalent to 30 Hiroshima bombs, the B612 Foundation, a non-profit group founded by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and space shuttle astronaut Ed Lu, are warning that only “blind luck” has so far saved it from worse.

“It’s a giant game of chance we’re playing. It’s cosmic roulette,” said Dr Lu, whose group is working towards building and launching Sentinel, a $250 million telescope that would spot space rocks on a collision course with the earth, giving several years or even decades worth of notice to deflect a disaster.

“There’s a saying in Vegas that ‘The house never loses’. It’s true; you can’t just keep playing a game of chance and expect to keep winning,” added Dr Lu, the group’s chief executive officer.

In January, data obtained by Dr Peter Brown, a planetary scientist and asteroid expert at the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, revealed that since 2001 the earth has been struck by asteroids the size of the Chelyabinsk rock – or bigger – 26 times; up to ten times more frequently than previously thought.

On Tuesday, which is Earth Day, the B612 Foundation will hold a press conference to unveil more critical details, including a video presentation that will for the first time reveal the locations and sizes of the multi-kiloton impacts.

“We are literally in a shooting gallery,” said Mr Schweickart. “That’s the message we want people to understand. It’s happening, it’s ongoing, and the big ones will come. It’s just a matter of when.”

The video is based on information from the International Monitoring System, a network of sensors set up around the world to verify compliance with the global ban on nuclear weapons testing. The technology detects sound waves and shock waves above and below Earth’s surface.

Since only 28 per cent of the planet’s surface is land, and only one per cent is populated, the majority of asteroid strikes are in remote regions, deserts and oceans.

“The fact that none of these asteroid impacts represented in the video was detected in advance, is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck,” said Dr Lu, who flew three space shuttle missions and served a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station during his 12-year Nasa career.

He added: “I think people are going to be pretty shocked. Many have this misconception that asteroid impacts are rare. They are not. But we have it in our power to make them rare.”

The Chelyabinsk asteroid ripped through the earth’s atmosphere as a 42,000mph fireball, exploding nearly 19 miles (30kms) above the ground. It damaged 7,200 properties in six cities and injured 1,500 people across a 26-mile radius.

In an uncanny coincidence, astronomers’ attention was to have been focused that day on another asteroid – a 45 metre-wide rock tagged DA14 – which had been identified through ground-based telescopes one year previously as being on a “near miss” trajectory towards the earth.

But just 16 hours before DA14 made its closest approach, passing by the planet at a distance of 17,200 miles, came Chelyabinsk’s unexpected visitor, a 65-foot wide rock weighing more than the Eiffel Tower. It had gone undetected for years because it came from the same direction as the Sun’s glare, making it impossible for ground-based optical telescopes to see it.

Sentinel, which the B612 Foundation is aiming to launch in 2018, will be positioned up to 170 million miles from the earth, near Venus, from where its lenses would point away from the Sun. In the first month of operation alone, it is expected to detect and track more than 20,000 near-Earth asteroids, exceeding the discoveries made by all other telescopes combined over the course of the last 30 years.

Over six and a half years, it will make an inventory of 98 per cent of near-Earth asteroids; the current detection level stands at only one per cent.

Mr Schweickart, who as an astronaut on Nasa’s Apollo 9 mission in March 1969 played a critical role in paving the way for man’s first landing on the Moon four months later, co-founded the B612 Foundation and now serves as chairman emeritus.

The group first worked on designing technologies to deflect asteroids from collisions with Earth, before launching the Sentinel early-warning project.

It is having to raise the $250 million to build Sentinel, and the further $200 million to operate it for 6.5 years, itself.

The failure by the US government to do the job itself irks Schweickart.

“Scientific projects such as understanding that there’s an ocean under the ice on Europa is a really wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t compete in terms of government funding priorities with ensuring the safety and security of people here on Earth,” he said.

“The fact is, the government just isn’t doing its job. It’s not all that much money when you compare it to the cost of building a university or a freeway over-pass.”

On Tuesday, Dr Lu will be joined at the B612 Foundation’s press conference in Seattle by Tom Jones, a four-time space shuttle astronaut and president of the Association of Space Explorers.

Also present will be Bill Anders, a member of the three-strong Apollo 8 crew that in 1968 became the first to fly around the Moon. Mr Anders’ famous “Earthrise” photograph, which gave mankind its first ever glimpse of a fragile Earth rising over the Moon’s crater-strewn surface, will provide the backdrop.

“We began Apollo 8 thinking we were going to learn about the Moon,” said Mr Anders. “Instead, we began a new understanding of our Earth.”

Dr Lu added: “For those of us who’ve seen the Earth from space, you can’t help but make that realisation of what a fragile and beautiful place we live in. If I could get one million people to see that view of Earth, then I could just pass the hat and we could build Sentinel tomorrow.”

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Port in a storm

‘Goldenballs’ plan for a new footie stadium at the Port of Miami loses its lustre as the shipping fraternity weighs anchor on the project

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David Beckham’s dreams of building a football stadium in Miami have fallen foul of a formidable alliance of adversaries who have launched a newspaper campaign to condemn the plan, saying it would disrupt the port that is the lifeblood of the city.

The former England captain and star of the Major League Soccer team LA Galaxy announced his vision two months ago to bring an MLS side to Miami, stock it with some of the biggest names in the game, and build a 25,000-seat stadium on the city’s waterfront. Some of Miami’s most powerful business leaders, however, have urged authorities to give his plan the red card.

In a full-page advertisement in The Miami Herald, the group, the Miami Seaport Alliance (MSA), said that a stadium would interfere with cruise and cargo operations at the port, potentially jeopardising thousands of jobs and hindering expansion plans.

“We support a soccer franchise in Miami wholeheartedly and there are several suitable sites that would benefit tremendously from a stadium. However, Port Miami is not one of them,” the group, which is led by Royal Caribbean Cruises, said.

The port is the area’s most valuable economic engine after tourism, contributing $27 billion (£16 billion) a year to city coffers and supporting more than 207,000 jobs.

In anticipation of a doubling of cargo traffic over the next ten years, due in part to the expansion of the Panama Canal and growing cruise line operations, the MSA wants the vacant land on which Beckham hopes to build to be preserved solely for industrial purposes.

Well-paid jobs for crane operators and mechanics would be replaced by low-earning stadium jobs, such as food vendors, the advert said.

The opportunity to buy an MLS franchise for a cut-price $25 million was written into Beckham’s contract when he signed for LA Galaxy in 2007. He would co-own the franchise with his investors, the Bolivian-born telecoms billionaire Marcelo Claure and his business manager Simon Fuller, the Pop Idol creator.

“I know this city is ready for football. This is a dream,” Mr Beckham said at a Miami press conference announcing the move in February, at which he pledged to make the team the best in the world. However, he also predicted “a few bumps along the way”.

Gaining the necessary planning permission is a process likely to be protracted by political and industrial influences. Though Miami’s mayor is on board, some of the commissioners on the Miami-Dade County planning board who initially appeared in favour have since voiced doubts.

A failure to win planning permission would be likely to prolong, though not necessarily derail, Beckham’s plans to bring MLS football to the city. Other potential stadium sites have been identified by his group, though the port area — overlooking the downtown skyline — is at the top of his wish list.

John Alschuler, Mr Beckham’s real estate adviser, said yesterday: “David has proposed a stadium that would be transformative for Miami. There’s always opposition with big moves and transformative activity. That’s no great surprise. We are confident that the people looking to create a new future, new jobs and new energy will look beyond the narrow self-interest of people who have yet to muster any factual argument or identified any basis for opposition.”

He added: “I have spoken with Simon Fuller several times and Simon is convinced that Miami will rally around an affirmative vision for its place on a global stage.”

The MSA statement urged in its open letter to the local community: “Don’t be misled by the rhetoric. Let’s drop anchor on this harmful idea immediately and focus our attention on developing one of the other potential locations.”

More trouble in paradise

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A masked gang who gunned down a British man during a robbery at his mother’s home in the Bahamas may have struck before, police said.

Emrick Seymour, assistant commissioner of the Royal Bahamas police force, said that the killers of Edgar Dart, who was shot in the chest and left to die in front of his family on Tuesday, may have been responsible for a recent attack in a neighbouring community.

An 82-year-old man had survived a machete attack in his home that bore similarities to the one in which Mr Dart was killed. “It’s a strong possibility that they could be the very same people behind both incidents,” Mr Seymour said.

The island of Grand Bahama, where Mr Dart was killed as he tried to protect his 13-year-old son, his recently widowed mother and other relatives, has had six homicides this year, four in the past week alone. A rise in robberies and murders across the Bahamas has compounded concerns about the effect of high crime levels on tourism. Mr Dart, 56, formerly of Topsham, Devon, had emigrated to Canada 16 years ago. He was visiting his mother, Joy, 79, who has lived on Grand Bahama since 1996, when three men broke into the house armed with a gun and a machete.

Russia gets the cold shoulder

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Tensions over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea spilled into space yesterday after Nasa suspended cooperation with Russia, prompting worries about the future of the International Space Station (ISS).

Days after an insistence by the head of Nasa, Charlie Bolden, that its relationship with Russia remained unaffected by political strains – and 39 years after the first US-Soviet collaboration in orbit – the US space agency announced that it was severing “the majority” of contact with its international partner.

Operation of the ISS – a $100 billion orbiting laboratory currently crewed by two American astronauts, three Russians and one Japanese – is exempt from the sanctions.

However, the decision to withdraw all other ties raised concerns about the potential for tit-for-tat moves that could put a stranglehold on its operations and other US space interests. Maintaining cordiality over the ISS – a symbol of post Cold War cooperation and in recent months the subject of a growing campaign for Nobel Peace Prize nomination – remains critical, experts said yesterday.

“We and the Russians have a very deep an integrated relationship. We are reliant on them as they are on us,” said Professor Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“Divorce is not an option,” he added.

Having retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, Nasa is, however, currently reliant on Russia for ferrying American astronauts to orbit, at a cost of $71 million a time.

The US also depends on certain Russian technologies such as RD-180 engines to power its Atlas V rockets, America’s primary vehicle for launching both military and civil payloads into orbit including spy satellites, weather-monitoring devices, science, communications and global positioning systems. Though the US currently has a two-year supply of the engines, and the blueprints for making more itself, establishing domestic manufacturing capabilities could take up to five years.

Nasa has farmed out to the private sector the task of developing new space taxis to carry American astronauts into space, but the first manned flight is not expected until at least 2017. The situation is considered embarrassing at Nasa, which yesterday accused Congress of hobbling the process with its failure to grant adequate funding for swifter development.

“Had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year,” the agency complained in a statement issued yesterday.

“With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from US soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions fo dollars to Russia. It’s that simple.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, accused Washington of raising “scores of problems” by imposing sanctions on its dialogue and cooperation with Moscow in protest at Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Areas affected include humanitarian, cultural, consular and even weather-forecasting partnerships, he complained.

“Obviously, the US authorities have been seriously rattled, he said, teasing: “How can I advise our American partners in this situation?

“I can advise them to spend more time outdoors, practice yoga, try a separate nutrition diet and maybe even watch a comedy series on TV rather than work themselves and others up, knowing in advance that ‘the ship has sailed’ and children’s tantrums, tears and hysterics will not help.”