US, China, UAE Sending Spacecraft to Mars This Week

In a fresh attempt to scout out signs of previous life on Mars, the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates are sending out spacecraft to Mars, starting this week.The unmanned spacecraft are also analyzing the area to prepare for future astronauts.The U.S. is sending a rover named Perseverance to gather rock samples, and it will likely not return for ten years.Each spacecraft must go over 482 million kilometers to reach Mars, after which they must leave Earth’s orbit and enter Mars’. The process of arriving alone takes at least six or seven months.The countries’ goal is to find out if Mars had any signs of previous microscopic life. As has been previously determined, Mars used to have bodies of water, so it’s possible the planet was also host to some type of life.In this illustration on June 16, 2020, NASA’s Perseverance rover uses its Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) instrument to analyze a rock on the surface of Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)“Robot missions over the past decade or so have shown that Mars is not a dead, alien place as we had concluded in the late 20th century. In fact it is a world peppered with old lake beds, dried out river channels and organic material,“ said Professor Ray Arvidson, of Washington University, St Louis. All three countries are sending out spacecraft in the same week because there is a period of only one month in every 26 months in which Mars and Earth are on the same side of the sun. When they’re on the same side of the sun, the time for travel can be reduced as much as possible. Only the U.S. has placed a spacecraft on Mars before. 

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Look Out, Mars: Here We Come with a Fleet of Spacecraft

Mars is about to be invaded by planet Earth — big time. Three countries — the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates — are sending unmanned spacecraft to the red planet in quick succession beginning this week, in the most sweeping effort yet to seek signs of ancient microscopic life while scouting out the place for future astronauts.The U.S., for its part, is dispatching a six-wheeled rover the size of a car, named Perseverance, to collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade. “Right now, more than ever, that name is so important,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said as preparations went on amid the coronavirus outbreak, which will keep the launch guest list to a minimum. Each spacecraft will travel more than 300 million miles (483 million kilometers) before reaching Mars next February. It takes six to seven months, at the minimum, for a spacecraft to loop out beyond Earth’s orbit and sync up with Mars’ more distant orbit around the sun. Scientists want to know what Mars was like billions of years ago when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed simple, tiny organisms to flourish before the planet morphed into the barren, wintry desert world it is today. “Trying to confirm that life existed on another planet, it’s a tall order. It has a very high burden of proof,” said Perseverance’s project scientist, Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena, California.In a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover Perseveranceo, Dec. 17, 2019. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)The three nearly simultaneous launches are no coincidence: The timing is dictated by the opening of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimizes travel time and fuel use. Such a window opens only once every 26 months. Mars has long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination but has proved to be the graveyard for numerous missions. Spacecraft have blown up, burned up or crash-landed, with the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50%. China’s last attempt, in collaboration with Russia in 2011, ended in failure. Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India. The United Arab Emirates and China are looking to join the elite club. The UAE spacecraft, named Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, is an orbiter scheduled to rocket away from Japan on Wednesday, local time, on what will be the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The spacecraft, built in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, will arrive at Mars in the year the UAE marks the 50th anniversary of its founding. “The UAE wanted to send a very strong message to the Arab youth,” project manager Omran Sharaf said. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you can do much more. … The nice thing about space, it sets the standards really high.” Controlled from Dubai, the celestial weather station will strive for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers) to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. China will be up next, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter sometime around July 23; Chinese officials aren’t divulging much. The mission is named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven. NASA, meanwhile, is shooting for a launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral.  Perseverance is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. China’s much smaller rover will aim for an easier, flatter target. To reach the surface, both spacecraft will have to plunge through Mars’ hazy red skies in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” — the most difficult and riskiest part of putting spacecraft on the planet. Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission. Brand-new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer the craft away from hazards. Ground controllers will be helpless, given the 10 minutes it takes radio transmissions to travel one-way between Earth and Mars. Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites.  Where there was water — and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago — there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater. But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers. Perseverance will hunt for rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.  It will drill into the most promising rocks and store a half-kilogram (about 1 pound) of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover. To prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the samples, the tubes are super-sterilized, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “Yep, I’m staking my reputation on it,” he said. While prowling the surface, Perseverance as well as China’s rover will peek below, using radar to locate any underground pools of water that might exist. Perseverance will also release a spindly, 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter that will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet.  Perseverance’s cameras will shoot color video of the rover’s descent, providing humanity’s first look at a parachute billowing open at Mars, while microphones capture the sounds.  The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere. Extracted oxygen could someday be used by astronauts on Mars for breathing as well as for making rocket propellant. NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and send them from there to Mars in the 2030s. To that end, the space agency is sending samples of spacesuit material with Perseverance to see how they stand up against the harsh Martian environment. The tab for Perseverance’s mission, including the flight and a minimum two years of Mars operations, is close to $3 billion. The UAE’s project costs $200 million, including the launch but not mission operations. China has not disclosed its costs. Europe and Russia dropped plans to send a life-seeking rover to Mars this summer after falling behind in testing and then getting slammed by COVID-19.  Perseverance’s mission is seen by NASA as a comparatively low-risk way of testing out some of the technology that will be needed to send humans to the red planet and bring them home safely. “Sort of crazy for me to call it low risk because there’s a lot of hard work in it and there are billions of dollars in it,” Farley said. “But compared to humans, if something goes wrong, you will be very glad you tested it out on a half-kilogram of rock instead of on the astronauts.”  

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It’s Trump’s Call on What the GOP Convention Will Look Like 

After months of insisting that the Republican National Convention go off as scheduled despite the pandemic, President Donald Trump is slowly coming to accept that the late August event will not be the four-night infomercial for his reelection that he had anticipated. After a venue change, spiking coronavirus cases and a sharp recession, Trump aides and allies are increasingly questioning whether it’s worth the trouble, and some are advocating that the convention be scrapped altogether. Conventions are meant to lay out a candidate’s vision for the coming four years, not spark months of intrigue over the health and safety of attendees, they have argued. Ultimately, the decision on whether to move forward will be Trump’s alone. Already the 2020 event has seen a venue change  to more Trump-friendly territory in Jacksonville, Florida, from Charlotte, North Carolina — and it has been drastically reduced in scope.FILE – Jacksonville skyline behind Acosta Bridge on The St. Johns River, Florida.For technical reasons, the convention will be unable to formally adopt a new party platform. And what is normally a highlight of the convention — the roll call of the states to renominate the president — is set to be conducted through proxy votes in the original host city.  Still, Trump and his aides had pinned their hopes on creating the pageantry of a formal acceptance speech in Jacksonville, envisioning an arena of packed with supporters, without face masks. Outwardly, the White House and the RNC have said they’re full-steam ahead with the revised plan. “We’re still moving forward with Jacksonville,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last week. “It’ll be a safe event. It will be a good event.”  But privately, concerns are mounting, and plans are being drawn up to further scale back the event or even shift it to entirely virtual. Officials who weeks ago had looked for the convention to be a celebration of the nation’s vanquishing of the virus now see it as a potent symbol of the pandemic’s persistence. “There’s a lot of people that want to do it. They want to be enthusiastic. But we can do that and we can do it safely,” Donald Trump Jr. said. He told Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that “it’s going to be an awesome event.” Jacksonville, whose mayor is a former Florida Republican Party chairman, issued a public mask order two weeks ago as virus cases in the area surged. That mandate is unlikely to be lifted before the convention. Also, Florida has limited facilities statewide to operating at 50% of capacity.  Organizers now plan to provide COVID-19 testing to all attendees daily, conduct frequent temperature checks and offer face coverings. Even so, Trump aides and allies fear that the entire spectacle will be overshadowed by attendee concerns and already heightened media scrutiny on the potential for the convention to be a “super-spreading” event.  Key decisions about the event, including precisely where or if Trump will appear, need to be made in the coming days to allow sufficient time for the build-out of the space.  Increasingly, aides are pushing Trump to move his acceptance speech outdoors to minimize the risk of virus transmission. But Trump has expressed reservations about an outdoor venue, believing it would lack the same atmosphere as a charged arena.  FILE – Balloons fall after Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, addresses the delegates during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 21, 2016.Despite the economic downturn, GOP officials insist they will have the financial resources needed to hold the convention. Vice President Mike Pence flew to Florida on Saturday to hold a fundraiser for the event.  “The convention is still a month and a half away, so there is time to adjust and make the most appropriate decisions regarding venue options and an array of health precautions that will allow us to have a safe and exciting event for all,” RNC spokesman Mike Reed said. “We will continue to coordinate with local leadership in Jacksonville and in Florida in the weeks ahead.” The Trump team’s worries were compounded after the president’s embarrassing return to campaign rallies after a three-month hiatus caused by the virus.FILE – Empty seats are pictured during a Trump campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla.The empty seats at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, brought about a shakeup to Trump’s campaign and renewed fears that the president would not be able to return to his signature campaign events in their traditional form before Election Day in November.  A Saturday rally in New Hampshire that was meant to be the president’s second attempt at a return to campaign travel was called off on Friday, ostensibly because of weather concerns from then-Tropical Storm Fay. But aides acknowledged they also were worried about attracting enough of a crowd to fill the Portsmouth aircraft hangar. The challenge in Jacksonville may be more daunting. The administration’s top health officials have demurred when pressed on whether the convention could be held safely. Many among the party’s leadership and the donors who attend conventions are older, putting them in a higher-risk category for the coronavirus.  Already a half-dozen Republican senators have indicated they won’t attend the convention. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has expressed reservations.  “I’m not going to go, and I’m not going to go because of the virus situation,” 86-year-old Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said on a conference call with Iowa reporters last week. Asked whether he’d want to limit the gathering if the state’s coronavirus cases continue to rise, Trump replied that the decision “really depends on the timing.”  “We’re always looking at different things,” Trump said during an interview on Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren.” “When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good,” the president continued. “And now, all of a sudden, it’s spiking up a little bit. And that’s going to go down. It really depends on the timing. Look, we’re very flexible.”  

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Election Costs Soar as US Prepares to Vote Amid Pandemic

The demand for mail-in ballots is surging. Election workers need training. And polling booths might have to be outfitted with protective shields during the COVID-19 pandemic.As officials prepare for the Nov. 3 election, one certainty is clear: It’s coming with a big price tag.”Election officials don’t have nearly the resources to make the preparations and changes they need to make to run an election in a pandemic,” said Wendy Weiser, head of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program. “We are seeing this all over the place.”The pandemic has sent state and local officials scrambling to prepare for an election like few others, an extraordinary endeavor during a presidential contest, as virus cases rise across much of the U.S.COVID-related worries are bringing demands for steps to make sure elections just four months away are safe. But long-promised federal aid to help cash-starved states cope is stalled on Capitol Hill.The money would help pay for transforming the age-old voting process into a pandemic-ready system. Central to that is the costs for printing mail-in ballots and postage. There are also costs to ensure in-person voting is safe with personal protective equipment, or PPE, for poll workers, who tend to be older and more at risk of getting sick from the virus, and training for new workers. Pricey machines are needed to quickly count the vote.Complicating matters is President Donald Trump’s aversion to mail-in balloting. With worrisome regularity, he derides the process as rigged, even though there’s no evidence of fraud and his own reelection team is adapting to the new reality of widespread mail-in voting.  “As cases of coronavirus in this country rise, it’s vital that all voters be able to cast their ballots from home, to cast their ballots by mail,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.A COVID response bill passed by the House in May contains $3.6 billion to help states with their elections, but the Senate won’t turn to the measure until late July. Republicans fought a $400 million installment of election aid this March before agreeing to it.But key Senate Republicans seem likely to support more election funding, despite Trump’s opposition, and are even offering to lower a requirement that states put up matching funds to qualify for the federal cash.”I’m prepared not only to look at more money for the states to use as they see fit for elections this year but also to even consider whatever kind of matching requirement we have,” said Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate panel with responsibility for the issue. “We can continue to work toward an election that produces a result that people have confidence in and done in a way that everybody that wants to vote, gets to vote.”The pandemic erupted this spring in the middle of state primaries, forcing many officials to delay elections by days, weeks and even months. They dealt with poll worker cancellations, polling place changes and an explosion of absentee ballots.Voting rights groups are particularly concerned with the consolidations of polling places that contributed to long lines in Milwaukee, Atlanta and Las Vegas. They fear a repeat in November.As negotiations on the next COVID-19 relief bill begin on Capitol Hill, the final figure for elections is sure to end up much less than the $3.6 billion envisioned by the House. That figure followed Brennan Center recommendations to prepare for an influx of absentee ballots while providing more early voting options and protecting neighborhood polling places.Even before the pandemic, election offices typically work under tight budgets. Iowa Secretary of State Paul D. Pate, who’s president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said the group has been calling on the federal government to provide a steady source of funds, particularly to help address ongoing costs of protecting the nation’s election systems from cyberthreats.  For Georgia’s primary last month, election officials spent $8.1 million of the roughly $10.9 million the state has received in federal funds. The money was used to send absentee ballot applications to 6.9 million active registered voters and print absentee ballots for county election offices. Some of it also was used to purchase PPE and secure drop-off boxes for counties.Meanwhile, the state elections division has seen a $90,000 reduction for the current budget year as Georgia — like the rest of the nation — deals with a decline in revenues due to the pandemic.The state’s remaining federal funds will be used to help cover the costs of developing an online system for voters to request absentee ballots, less expensive than sending ballot applications to every voter, and exploring whether installing plexiglass dividers around voting machines could allow more voters in a polling place at one time.In Colorado, a universal vote-by-mail state, the Denver election office has had to reduce its budget by 7.5%, nearly $980,000. Jocelyn Bucaro, Denver’s elections director, said the federal funds sent this year helped with purchasing PPE and other pandemic-related supplies.  Iowa similarly spent its federal dollars on mail-in ballots and pandemic supplies, Pate said.Vote-by-mail veterans and vendors of the equipment, software, ballots and envelopes that will be needed in November say the window to buy them is quickly closing.”Right now, what I’m seeing in most places is just this kind of indecision. What are we supposed to be planning? Vote by mail or in-person or combination?” said Jeff Ellington, president of Runbeck Election Services, which prints ballots and the special envelopes used to mail them and supplies high-volume envelope sorters.  “Decisions just need to be made so people can start to put a plan into place,” he said.BlueCrest, a Pitney Bowes spinoff, sells high-volume sorting machines that handle up to 50,000 ballot envelopes per hour. That’s the kind of crunch big counties can expect to face Nov. 3 in states including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Rick Becerra, a vice president at the company, said he’s been talking to officials. The machines average $475,000 each.”I tell them the time is now,” he said.
 

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Dozens of US Universities Support Challenge to Trump’s Order on Foreign Students

About 60 U.S. universities on Sunday filed a brief supporting a lawsuit by two others, seeking to block a Trump administration rule barring foreign students from remaining in the country if educational institutions don’t hold in-person classes this fall.The lawsuit was filed by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Wednesday in a federal court in Boston.The so-called amicus brief — a supporting document submitted by interested parties — was filed by 59 U.S. universities on Sunday, including seven other Ivy League schools.The universities said they relied on federal guidance, which was to remain “in effect for the duration of the emergency,” allowing international students to attend all-online courses during the pandemic, according to the amicus brief.”The emergency persists, yet the government’s policy has suddenly and drastically changed, throwing amici’s preparations into disarray and causing significant harm and turmoil,” they added.About 1.1 million foreign students attended U.S. higher education institutions in the 2018-19 school year, according to a report by the State Department and the Institute of International Education (IIE), and they made up 5.5 percent of the entire U.S. higher education enrollment.The Trump administration announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the challenges of safely resuming classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated around the world and surges in the United States.The U.S government has been trying to get schools and universities to reopen by autumn. Harvard has already announced it would hold all classes online that term. 

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How the Discovery of Fresh Water Will Bolster Chinese Claims in a Disputed Sea

Discovery of a rare freshwater reserve under one of its land holdings in a widely disputed sea gives China a boost in occupying the islet and offers it a new defense for its sovereignty claims if they land in international court.A freshwater lens is forming under Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, Chinese researchers said in the peer-reviewed publication Hydrology Journal. The lens created by tidal activity will take 20 years to become “stable” at 15 meters thick, the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology researchers in Guangzhou said in the May 2020 study.“Having this freshwater access evidently will change the quality of life and change their ability to station people on the artificial island,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center research organization in Washington.Most among the hundreds of islets in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea are semi-submerged or too small to support freshwater supplies. China used reclaimed land to build up Fiery Cross Reef to its current 274 hectares and now operates an airbase there with several hundred personnel.The presence of water could mildly help China in any international court case to argue that Fiery Cross deserves a 370-kilometer-wide ocean exclusive economic zone, analysts say. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest all or parts of China’s claims to the sea. They prize the waterway for its fisheries plus undersea reserves of oil and gas.The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea considers an islet’s ability to sustain life or economic activity when deciding whether a country can draw up an exclusive economic zone, but in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected that right for Taiping Island, a Taiwanese-controlled Spratly feature with its own water supply.China leads the other claimants in firepower, technology and scientific research. It may have explored other South China Sea holdings for freshwater as well but found some only on Fiery Cross Reef, Sun said. Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines claim sovereignty over the same reef.Finding water will at least boost Chinese morale, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.“These are somewhat psychological building blocks,” Huang said. They imply, he said, that the Chinese “are making progress, they are moving on, but I don’t think in real terms they can actually use the limited freshwater to do anything so strategically.”A local freshwater source will cut the costs of shipping water to Fiery Cross Reef or desalinating it, analysts note. That advantage would make it easier to station troops there. Woody Island, a Chinese-held South China Sea feature with about 1,000 long-term residents, collects rainwater and gets additional water shipped in.But the freshwater lens won’t give China enough water to support a “sizable” fighting force on the ground, Huang said.“It doesn’t change the balance of power in the region,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It doesn’t give China a stronger leg up in any aspect. You could catch rainwater and store it and treat it and drink it, if you have the space.” 

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