December 4, 2013 12:54 pm
Just shy of a year ago, the U.S. Air Force launched an experimental X-37B space drone on a secret mission to the edge of space. The mission, known as OTV-3, isn’t super-duper top secret: after all, there’s video of the launch. But it is secret in the sense that no one really knows what the heck the unmanned drone has been doing for the past year as it’s circled the planet at low Earth orbit.
The Air Force has at least two of this type of space drone: they’re made by Boeing and look a lot like miniature space shuttles. Like the shuttle, the X-37B can land on a runway and be reused. Unlike the shuttle, the space drone can perform this feat by itself. The X-37B in orbit right now is actually on its second trip to space, following on the heels of its earlier trip in 2010. The Air Force’s other X-37B went up in 2011 and, after 15 months in space, touched down in California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base in June.
So what is the Air Force doing with these fancy space drones? No one really knows. (Well, except those with access to classified material.) But theories abound. Some people think it’s a weapon—a bomber or a death ray—but USA Today says that’s probably pretty ridiculous. According to Popular Mechanics, the space drone could be acting just like any other drone, except in space.
A group of civilian satellite spotters tracking the second X-37B, which is called OTV-2, have noted that the spaceplane’s orbit takes it over countries including Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Weeden agrees that whatever secret payload the X-37B is carrying could indeed be used to capture data from those regions.
A March story by NASASpaceflight.com gives a slightly more grounded look at what the Air Force may be up to. Boeing, who makes the drone, was trying to pitch NASA on the idea of using the X-37B as a robotic shuttle to low Earth orbit, NASA Spaceflight says. According to Boeing, the ship could be adapted to work as a shipping container to ferry stuff back and forth to the International Space Station. The company also said that the ship could be modified to fit a team of five to seven people and could even be used some sort of escape pod.
NASA seemingly didn’t bite on Boeing’s proposal, but it does give us an idea of what the little ship could be capable of.
For now, USA Today reports, the Air Force says that the drone is both a test and a testbed. The idea is to iron out the kinks of a reusable, automated space vehicle and use the ship’s storage spaces to test how new sensors and other equipment hold up in the harsh environment of space.
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November 25, 2013 2:35 pm
In 2011, mass protests in Egypt pushed out long-time leader Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak’s fall, protestors again took to the streets to demonstrate against the military leaders who had stepped into the power vacuum. After Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president, he, too, was forced out amid violent protests in July of this year. And there were protests that followed, objecting to Morsi’s ousting.
Now, the current government is banning protests, says the Associated Press.
Since Morsi left power, a violent conflict has pitted the interim government, propped up by the military, against the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ban covers any gathering of more than ten people that wasn’t previously approved by the government.
Egypt’s military originally wanted to make “insulting the state” similarly illegal, says the AP, but that provision was removed from the bill.
The new law is more restrictive than regulations used under the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in Egypt’s 2011 uprising that marked the start of unrest in the country. Rights groups and activists immediately denounced it, saying it aims to stifle opposition, allow repressive police practices and keep security officials largely unaccountable for possible abuses.
The restrictions are tight and widely focused:
The law… grants security agencies the right to bar any protests or public gatherings, including election-related meetings of political parties, if they deem it a threat to public safety or order… The new law also bars gatherings in places of worship, a regular meeting place for all protests in Egypt and one heavily used by Islamist groups. The law also says the police have the right — following warnings — to use force gradually, including the use of water cannons, tear gas and clubs.
It should not be surprising that, in a country whose recent political leadership has been defined by the protests, the new rules are not being universally praised. The AP quotes Shaima Awad, a Muslim brother member, saying that the law “unifies revolutionaries afresh. … We can now all agree that the military authorities are trying to strangle any voice that says no. We won’t accept and others won’t accept that either.”
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November 25, 2013 10:46 am
Iran has the technological ability to produce nuclear weapons. Yet, so far as we know, they have not done so. In a deal worked out over the weekend Iran has agreed to temporarily honor sanctions on its nuclear program in exchange for roughly $7 billion in relief. The deal is the first big step in efforts to curb Iranian nuclear proliferation in years, but the restrictions are a temporary deal—the sanctions will last just six months, hopefully giving politicians time to work out a longer-term agreement.
First off, here’s what Iran didn’t agree to do: Iran did not agree to stop enriching uranium from uranium-238—the type of uranium primarily found in raw uranium ore—into uranium-235, the kind used in most nuclear reactors and bombs. This is seen, by some countries, as a failure to fully curb Iran’s nuclear potential.
Here’s what Iran did agree to do: Iran agreed to not build any more centrifuges, the equipment used for enriching uranium. Iran also agreed to limit the scope of its enrichment program. Natural uranium is around 0.7 percent uranium-235, and Iran still going to enrich uranium to around 3.5 to 5 percent uranium-235, the level used for nuclear reactors. But it’s going to stop making 20 percent enriched uranium-235, and it’s going to cut down on the stocks of 20 percent enriched uranium it already has.
The deal is sort of complicated, and doesn’t really make much sense unless you know a little bit about nuclear enrichment. This graph from the World Nuclear Association is actually super useful for understanding what the U.S. is trying to do with the nuclear deal, once you know how to read it.
Along the left axis of this graph is the amount of work that you need to do to enrich uranium, from the natural level around 0.7 percent up to 90 percent, the enrichment level needed for nuclear weapons. That effort is measured in SWUs, or separative work units, the amount of work it takes to separate uranium-235 out from uranium-238. From low levels of enrichment, on the left, up to high levels on the right, you can see the slope taper off. This means that once your uranium is already enriched a little bit, it takes less work to enrich it even more.
So, since enriching uranium gets easier the more you do it, the U.S. is worried about something called a “nuclear breakout.” That is, if Iran has a lot of uranium enrichment capability, in the form of centrifuges, and big stockpiles of 5 percent- and 20 percent-enriched uranium, it wouldn’t take them long at all to to push for a nuclear weapons-caliber 90%-enriched uranium, if they did decide to develop a weapon.
Here’s what the deal really does: By limiting the number of centrifuges the country has, and making it knock down its stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, the nuclear deal adds time to Iran’s nuclear breakout potential. The country could still push for a weapon, but with its handicapped supplies and production facilities, it would take it longer to do so—giving the rest of the world more time to notice and react.
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November 13, 2013 10:37 am
Last week Germany’s Focus magazine broke the news that a trove of art, looted by people working for the Nazi Party, had been recovered in a Munich apartment. The collection included more than 1,400 works of art from greats such as Picasso, with the value of the whole collection estimated to be somewhere above $1 billion. Now, some of those works are starting to trickle online to the website LostArt.de.
LostArt.de, says the Guardian, is a site intended to help people, largely Jewish people who had lost their art to the Nazis to blackmail or theft, reconnect with their lost treasures.
So far, of the 1,406 pieces of art recovered in Munich, says the Canadian Press, 25 have made their way online, including works by Picasso and Chagall, with more set to follow.
But the interest of people around the world in the Munich haul means that the site has been buckling under the load. The Guardian:
“No one was expecting such a storm of demand,” said a culture ministry spokesman after visitors had difficulties accessing the site. “The server was overwhelmed by the massive demand. The only thing to do is wait.”
A month ago we didn’t even know some of these works existed—surely we can wait a little longer.
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November 4, 2013 10:50 am
The Nazi Party hated modern art. “Whole movements,” says the German Historical Institute, were dubbed “degenerate art,” including “Expressionism, Impressionism, Dada, New Objectivity, Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism, among others.” Famous artists, including many German artists, were denounced by the state and their work deemed “incompatible with [Nazi] ideology or propaganda.” In the run up to World War II, masterpieces were rounded up, stolen or taken as blackmail from Jewish-German collectors.
Now, decades later, authorities have just recovered some 1,500 pieces of “degenerate art” from an apartment in Munich, says the Guardian. These are masterpieces from artists such as Picasso and Matisse. The haul, the authorities say, is worth more than a billion dollars.
The art had been in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt. The Guardian:
Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had been a museum director in Zwickau until Hitler came to power, lost his post because he was half Jewish, but was later commissioned by the Nazis to sell works abroad. The discovered loot may show that Gurlitt in fact collected many of the artworks himself and managed to keep them throughout the war.
After the war, allied troops designated Gurlitt a victim of Nazi crimes. He reportedly said he had helped many Jewish Germans to fund their flight into exile, and that his entire art collection had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.
But the art was not destroyed—it was hiding in the younger Gurlitt’s Munich apartment, buried “among stacks of rotting groceries.” Cornelius Gurlitt is now in his 70s. The art was first flagged in 2011 by customs officials, says Reuters, but the story didn’t break until now.
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