Cassini probe zooms between Saturn’s rings and its outer atmosphere


The Cassini probe has accomplished an historic feat in space exploration today, after becoming the first man-made object to successfully fly between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself.

Cassini executed a perfect dive through the 1,500 miles-wide gap earlier today, causing great excitement inside Mission Control back on Earth.

The manouever was not without its risks, as controllers feared the probe may collide with unseen debris orbiting the planet. However, their daring gamble paid off, and Cassini flew through the gap unscathed. Today’s was the first of a further 22 planned gap-runs at speeds of nearly 80,000 mph.

Today’s flyover took Cassini to within 2,000 miles of Saturn’s upper cloudy surface. The next runs will take about 7 days to complete, and the craft is expected to gather invaluable scientific data during this period.

Cassini is nearing the end of its 20-year long mission to Saturn. After orbiting the planet for 13 years, controllers have set the probe on a ballistic course, which will end on September 15 at 9:45 a.m. GMT (6:45 a.m. ET), when it burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Little was known about Saturn before Cassini began its mission. Back in 2004, the probe beamed data that proved key to charting the planet and its moons.

Deep-space scan reveals Earth-like world that could host alien life


Deep-space researchers have located a world which they say has the potential to harbor alien life.

Named LHS1140b, the exoplanet is in the Cetus constellation, 40 light-years away from Earth. It has its own sun in the form of a red dwarf (LHS1140), which the planet circles once every 25 days. Researchers calculate the planet’s age at around 5bn years, and believe that its mass and density and much larger than Earth’s, suggesting a rocky composition with a super-dense iron core.

The most striking feature is that LHS1140b’s orbit places it right in the middle of the planetary system. In other words, the world would receive just the right amount of heat and light to sustain life, just like Earth.

LHS1140b is the latest in a series of newly discovered worlds that could possibly host alien life. In summer 2016, scientists spotted Proxima b, a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star that is closest to Earth (4.2 light years away). Proxima b also lies in that optimal zone where it would be neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist.

In the future, researchers hope to avail of better equipment to analyze these planets’ atmosphere and surface to determine whether or not life as we know is possible.

Two minutes to midnight: The specter of nuclear war awakens


The Doomsday Clock almost stopped in 1962. At the height of the Cold War, and with Soviet ballistic missiles close to being deployed on Cuban soil, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation during a tense 13-day stand-off between the two superpowers.

Diplomatic solutions ultimately ended the stalemate, and sanity prevailed. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief as the nuclear weapons were stood down.

In the intervening years, a number of armed conflicts have erupted in the Middle East and elsewhere, but the very localized nature of these bloody struggles never reached the potentially Armageddon-esque consequences of the missile crisis in 1962.

Fast forward to 2017, and enter Kim Jong-Un, supreme leader of th DPRK, and Donald Trump, President of the United States.

These two guys talk tough, sizing each other up, engaging in a perilous game of international stakes, juggling the fate of the world in their hands.

And it so happens that the countries that these two oversized school bullies represent are highly militaristic in nature. The US’ military might is unrivalled, yet the North Koreans are not short of a gun or two, and could certainly give the US a run for their dollar.

North Korea, a secretive, reclusive, and by Western standards at least, very much ‘poor’, justifies its disproportionate spending on army matters by purporting a constant threat of invasion by ‘foreign’ forces. And the country has a particular bone to pick against the United States.


The seeds for the current tensions in the region were sown almost seven decades ago, when North Korea invaded its southern neighbour, firing the first shots of the Korean War.

Aided by China and the Soviet Union, North Korean troops pushed ahead and brought South Korea to almost defeat. In light of the dire situation, the US came to the assistance of South Korea and helped stabilize the situation with an amphibious assault at Inchon, which effectively cut off the north’s supply lines.

From then on, fighting on the ground continued on a more or less equal footing, with the struggle concentrating around Parallel 38, the ‘unofficial border’ between the two Koreas.

War in the air was a totally different matter, however. The US Air Force mercilessly pounded North Korea from above, turning many of the country’s villages and towns into rubble. The country’s capital, Pyongyang, saw about 75% of its surface pulverized, for instance. The sustained bombing campaign resulted in as much as 400,000 victims.

After signing an armistice in 1953, the two Koreas remained technically at war, with regular acts of aggression by the north over the course of the decades.

Kim Jong-Un, the current ruler, has not forgotten the savage bombardment that his country was subjected to, and in a way, he seeks retribution.

Nuclear deterrence

Kim knows recent history well. He is fully aware that the ultimate fate of most dictators is swift popular justice backed by the US from the shadows, as was the case with Muammar Gaddafi in Lybia, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His main goal is the
preservation of the regime, and the only real means to do so is the possession of nuclear weapons, something that both Lybia and Iraq lacked, with dire consequences for their leaders.

Nuclear weapons are a powerful bargaining chip in the international game of war. If you have them, you are in the Big League, on a level playing field with the US and some of the other big boys.

Kim has been steadily ramping up his country’s nuclear development program despite continuous sanctions by the UN. Past US administrations toyed with the idea of military action against North Korea, but all thought better of it.

Chemical weapons

North Korea’s arsenal, while it may lack nuclear warheads -for now, at least-, is mighty indeed. Its long range artillery is well within striking distance of hitting the South Korean capital, Seoul, just short of 40 miles away from the border. It is now also known that Kim’s regime owns, or is capable of producing, chemical weaponry. And it’s not afraid to use it, it seems. North Korea is widely suspected to be behind the assassination of
the leader’s half brother in Kuala Lumpur airport earlier this year, using the nerve agent VX.

President Trump’s administration is aware that any military intervention will trigger hard retaliation. North Korean officers have recently made very public remarks to say that the US faces ‘all out war’ if it engages in ‘reckless’ military actions against their country.

Nuclear war

President Trump recently ordered an ‘armada’ to steam towards North Korean waters. The Carl Vinson (CSG-1) carrier group is now on station just off the Peninsula.

North Korea regarded this move as an act of overt provocation, and responded with a tirade of bellicose rhetoric. The recent US’ Tomahawk strike in Syria was likely done as a way of showing that the US means business. US Vice President Mike Pence said that the era of ‘strategic patience‘ sported by previous administrations is now at an end.
During a press conference held at a very symbolic location near Parallel 38, Mr. Pence added that “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change.

We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable.”

In other words, the US is ready and willing to engage militarily in the region.

The nuclear specter, remote and largely theoretical for many years, is now back in the public domain as a palpable possibility.

The nuclear giants have been sleeping in their silos for far too long.

Rise of the machines: Russian-made robot taught markmanship skills, can hit targets wielding dual guns


FEDOR (Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research) is a Russian-made, humanoid robotic entity with a lot of skills under its metallic belt, so to speak.

FEDOR’s objective is to fly on a solo mission into space in 2021, but until such time comes, he is learning a lot.

FEDOR’s knows how to use keys, is skillfull with a variety of tools, and can drive vehicles. And his latest skill is shooting.

Videos have emerged of FEDOR wielding dual guns and hitting targets dead on at a shooting range, raising concerns that an army of autonomous, fully-automated, intelligent robotic warriors may be closer to reality that we’d perhaps like to think.

Developed by Android Technics and the Advanced Research Fund in Russia, FEDOR’s creators initially envisaged it as a machine to replace humans in high-risk rescue work.

Soon, however, a series of potential military applications for FEDOR became apparent.

FEDOR will have its time to shine in 2021, when he goes into space by itself. Between now and then, however, it is going to learn a lot more.

David Dao: The bloodied face of an airline’s hubris gone too far


The battered, bruised, and bloodied face of 69- year-old doctor David Dao made international headlines a few days ago, after the man was forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight.

Mr. Dao suffered a broken nose requiring reconstructive surgery, a concussion when he hit his head on an armrest, and lost two front teeth during the ordeal, which was filmed by a number of passengers. Apart from the physical battering, he suffered the indignity and humiliation of being dragged along the aircraft’s central aisle in a semi-conscious state in front of all other passengers and crew.

The incident happened while on the ground at Chicago O’Hare Airport, on board UA Flight 3411 on Sunday, April 9.

This grim episode has become a PR disaster for the airline, which has seen its stock value plummet in its wake. Almost $1bn was wiped out of the company’s worth in little over 48h.

United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, was quick to issue a half-assed apology that was tantamount to blaming the passenger’s ordeal on his own non-compliance when requested to give up his paid-for seat to accommodate some airline personnel. Mr. Munoz’s tone in subsequent public statements became increasingly contrite as financial losses mounted. He would go on to personally apologize to Mr. Dao, saying that such behaviour does not become the “United family”, and offered refunds to every passenger on Flight 3411.

Mr. Dao is now gearing for a well justified lawsuit that will hit the airline hard.

But how was United Airlines able to behave so brazenly and recklessly, potentially exposing itself to a six-figure plus lawsuit, and a huge loss of public respect?

The simple answer, because the airline thought it could get away with it.

Overbooking into disaster

The entire flying experience is stressful enough as it is nowadays. From the long queues at security, waiting for boarding, and then spending time inside a packed aircraft, the whole thing can take a toll on your endurance, even if you are a seasoned flyer.

The last thing a traveller needs is to witness a brutal, corporate-enforced assault on a fellow passenger.

Yet, this is exactly what happened on this fateful flight. Mr Dao’s forceful ejection took place in full view of everyone on board. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the other passengers, thinking that they may very well be ‘next’ on the airline’s hitlist.

Social media soon erupted in a violent backlash against United. Flight cancellations and tearing up of ‘Frquent Flyer’ cards inundated the internet. Memes and other media protests targeted the airline’s wanton behavior.

At the heart of the issue lies the murky tactic of overbooking. Mr. Dao was reportedly asked to give up his seat, along with three other passengers, so that United’s own staff could be accommodated.

Overbooking is a hitherto legal mechanism by which most US airlines can compensate losses in case of no-shows. It is a simple enough business trick to maximize profits, based on passenger trends and other mathematical estimations.

While not an exact science, it is common practice. If there are more passengers than seats, the airline is legally entitled to select random passengers for ‘bumping’. People will first be asked to give up their seats on their own volition. If nobody takes up the offer, passengers can be ‘involuntarily’ ejected.

This process is supposedly ‘random’, but some bumping guidelines do exist, according to industry experts. Some airlines will bump those on the lowest fares first, or those who checked in last. Bumping criteria varies.

Passengers booted off flights are entitled to compensation, which can range between $400 and $1,350, depending on flight length and a number of other factors.

Corporate hubris gone too far

Up to now, airlines have exerted absolutely power  over their passengers. We gladly give them our money and meekly board their planes, thankful to be taken to our destinations and be quiet about it. Most of the time, things go smoothly and there is little reason to complain, other than the quality of the food on board, or smelly passengers next to us.

However, things can sometimes go very, very wrong indeed, as Mr. Dao’s ordeal has decisively proved.

United’s CEO initial response to the incident goes to show the dismissive and cavalier holier-than- thou attitude towards a passenger’s plight. There was an attempt to make the victim in this case to be the instrument of his own downfall because of his refusal to give up his seat to begin with. Mr. Dao is a doctor, and had to be in his practice the next day, no matter what.

But corporate hubris backfired spectacularly in this instance, wiping a large chunk of United’s stock value off the market, and dragging the airline’s ‘Fly the friendly skies’ motto along a bloody aisle along with Mr. Dao’s body.

Cassini spacecraft detects conditions favorable to life in one of Saturn’s moons


The Cassini spacecraft has revealed some interesting data about Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

Enceladus, which takes its name from a Giant in Greek mythology, features an icy surface beneath which a vast ocean of liquid water is thought to exist.

More interestingly, gigantic plumes of gas rise out of the moon. These plumes contain hydrogen, which indicates the presence of chemical reactions similar to those that happen at the bottom of the oceans here on Earth.

On our planet, these vents teem with microbial life, which raises the possibility that similar lifeforms may exist elsewhere in the Universe.

Earthside, microbes feed on hydrogen venting out from the planet’s crust, so the same process may be taking place in Saturn.

Cassini has been performing flybys around Saturn for 13 years. The probe will soon enter its final cycle of 22 more orbits before crashing into the planet’s atmosphere around September next.

World on the brink: Chinese Minister for Foreign Affairs warns that war could break out in North Korea ‘at any moment’

Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, issued the stark warning while talking to reporters earlier today.

Yi’s words come amidst a heightened state of military readiness around the Korean Peninsula.

Earlier this week, the Chinese Army moved 150,000 troops close to the country’s border with North Korea as a large US naval fleet steamed towards the area.

A carrier group, led by the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Carl Vinson (CVN-70) was diverted from training operations off the Australian coast and dispatched to North Korean water earlier this week. Such move caused considerable upset to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, who said that the regime will counter any “reckless acts of aggression” with “whatever methods the US wants to take.” Kim referred to the deployment as a “grim situation.”

Beijing has been pushing for a diplomatic solution to the standoff, but the US appears bent on sparking a military confrontation.

Meanwhile, Moscow sources also advocate a “politic-diplomatic reconciliation” between the opposing sides, and warn against any act that may be perceived as a provocation.

North Korea has no love lost for the US. During the Korean War in 1950-1953, the American army bombed its foe mercilessly, killing at least 400,000 North Korean soldiers.

Analysts believe that the military buildup in the region may very well be a precursor to war. Apart from the mighty Carl Vinson strike group, two US destroyers equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles are also on their way, and long-range B1 Lancer and B2 Spirit bombers are on stand-by on Andersen Air Force Base in the Pacific island of Guam.

Speaking about the tense geopolitical situation in the region, the North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister issued the following statement during an interview with AP last Tuesday:

“If the US dares opt for a military action, crying out for ‘pre-emptive attack’, [Pyongyang] is ready to react. We will hold the US wholly accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its outrageous actions.”

The world is now closely watching the events unfolding in the region, with many seeing war as ‘inevitable.’

US air assets drop largest non-nuclear bomb on suspected ISIS tunnel network in Afghanistan


A Lockheed MC-130 from the US Air Force Special Operations Command dropped the largest conventional bomb available in the US arsenal on ISIS-held position in Afghanistan.

The aircraft dropped a GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB), commonly nicknamed ‘Mother of all Bombs’, on a cave complex beneath the Achin district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, late Thursday night. Military intelligence suspected that ISIS operatives used the fortified caves for concealment and to move around the province unhindered.

The 30-foot long, 22-thousand pound heavy weapon is dropped from a specially adapted MC-130 aircraft fitted out with a deployment sled.

Once the aft cargo ramp opens, a parachute deploys and drags the sled out until the weapon becomes airborne. MOAB uses internal gyros for stabilization and preset GPS coordinates to guide it to its target.

The weapon detonates in an air burst close to the ground, delivering almost 20 thousand pounds of H6 explosive material. Such massive release of energy causes a highly concentrated barometric shockwave (referred to as ‘overpressure’) that travels across the air and then through solid ground. MOAB is specifically designed to destroy hard, underground targets such as bunkers or reinforced cave systems.

According to US sources, 36 ISIS fighters died in the blast, which could be felt miles away. The gigantic explosion shattered glass and cracked walls in nearby villages.

This is the first combat drop of a MOAB weapon. The US still has another 14 units in its arsenal.

The attack comes shortly after two US Navy Destroyers -USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71)- launched a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Sharyat Airfield in Syria.

The MOAB strike is widely seen as a decisive show of force by the US military. President Trump referred to the bombing as ‘another successful job.’

The Carl Vinson Strike Group (CSG-1): All you need to know


The Carrier Group

The US Navy has ordered the deployment of a strike group led by the flagship Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Carl Vinson (CVN-70) to North Korean waters, as a show of force to the secretive regime of Kim Jong Un.

The naval strike force will be stationed near the Korean Peninsula, due to rising concerns that North Korea may conduct a nuclear test in the coming days to mark the April 15 birthday of Kim Il Sung (Jong’s grandfather).

The carrier group is indeed a force to be reckoned with. It includes the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) and USS Michael Murphy (DDG-112), and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG-57). Nuclear submarines are normally part of the deployment, and closely shadow the surface fleet.

The fleet’s air strike capabilities are provided by Carrier Wing 2, which includes the “Black Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 4, the “Blue Hawks” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 78, the “Bounty Hunters” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 2, the “Blue Blasters” of VFA-34, the “Kestrels” of VFA-137, the “Golden Dragons” of VFA-192, the “Black Eagles” of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 113, the “Gauntlets” of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 136, and the “Providers” of Fleet Logistic Support Squadron (VRC) 30.

This is a mighty force indeed, capable of all-weather, day-or-night strike capabilities.

As the fleet steams ahead towards its deployment area, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has issued a stark warning to the US.

Using traditionally tough rhetoric, Pyongyang said that the regime will counter any “reckless acts of aggression” with “whatever methods the US wants to take.” The regime referred to the deployment as a “grim situation.”

A statement released by North Korean officials read “We will make the US fully accountable for the catastrophic consequences that may be brought about by its high-handed and outrageous acts.”

Target options

US military top brass are said to be considering a range of targets around North Korea.

The country has been under close scrutiny over its nuclear weapons development program, particularly after a number of test rocket launches in recent months. Some of the rockets splashed down less than 200nmi from Japan’s northern shores. The US, a close ally of Japan, deemed this an unacceptable risk, prompting calls for action on North Korea.

According to US sources, a limited preemptive strike on a North Korean nuclear site may be carried out. This poses a problem, however, as the Carl Vinson air wing, powerful as it is, may just be short of the required might to destroy nuclear bunkers sited deep underground. Such task is normally performed via heavy ‘bunker buster’ weapons delivered by B1 or B2 bombers.

The US is also aware of the retaliation capabilities of the North Korean army, plus the fact that North Korea’s ally, China, may become involved in an armed confrontation. Up to 150,000 Chinese troops have been deployed to the North Korean border over the last few days, for example, a move that is widely regarded as a precursor to war in the region.

Decapitation strike

One option said to be considered by US strategists is a so-called ‘decapitation strike’, aimed at removing the North Korean leader and a number of key officials in one swift move. This would likely be conducted via missile or drone means, though the insertion of special forces on the ground may also be on the cards.

Death best before: Arkansas’ execution blitz before lethal drug’s expiration date


The facts

The state of Arkansas is gearing up for a historic feat in its penal system.

Starting next week, eight death row inmates will be put to death within a span of just 11 days. Why the rush to kill, you might ask?

Well, the batch of one of the drugs intended to be used, midazolam, will run out of date shortly after the last killing takes place.

The morality of capital punishment, questionable as it is, does not even come into the equation here. Eight men will be put to death purely because of a stock logistics issue. This circumstance cannot be underestimated. The judicial reasoning behind the decision is based purely on a product’s expiration date.

The drug

Midazolam is one of the drugs administered to the inmate during the process of inducing death. It is a powerful, fast-acting sedative, meant to render the condemned unconscious. Midazolam is a widely available and inexpensive drug, commonly used for the treatment of epileptic seizures and in anesthesia and sedation procedures worldwide.

But in recent years, midazolam has been chosen for a far more sinister purpose.

Traditionally, pentobarbital would have been used as the sedative drug, but its manufacturer banned the US Government from using it in judicial executions. Thus, the penal system turned its eyes to the cheapest option, midazolam.

Botched executions

Clayton Lockett was a 38-year-old murder convict and death row inmate at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma. Lockett’s execution took place on April 29, 2014. It was rushed ahead of schedule because a second inmate was due to die that day.

The process went wrong from the very beginning. Prison officials declared Lockett to be “unconscious” shortly after administering the sedative agent, midazolam. However, Lockett suddenly woke up and attempted to rise and talk. Over 40 minutes of writhing agony ensued, before the condemned died of a heart attack. The second execution was halted.

The scheduled execution of Ronald Bert Smith in Alabama on December 8, 2016, also went wrong shortly after midazolam was injected, once again calling the use of the drug into question.

A conveyor belt of state-sponsored death

The execution schedule has been set as follows: Two prisoners, Don Davis and Bruce Ward, will be put to death on 17 April. Three days later, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee will meet their fate, followed by Marcel Williams and Jack Jones on 24 April, and Kenneth Williams on 27 April.

Arkansas’ Governor, Asa Hutchinson, has already signed the death warrants for the eight men due to be killed. And in doing so, he has violated the state of Arkansas’ clemency laws. The state’s law book specifically rule that clemency hearings must take place 30 days before the due execution date, and that each condemned man must be allocated a two-hour hearing time with an independent board. But the unexpected and rushed decision by the Governor meant that some of the inmates scheduled to die did not have time to file in their requests for clemency hearings.

Now, Arkansas (where no execution has taken place for the last 12 years) is attemping to set a grim world record, one that has been marred by controversy since it became known. Not even Texas, a famously ‘death happy’ state, has ever carried as many procedures in such a short space of time.

Human trauma

Setting legal justifications aside for a moment, putting a fellow human being to death -even by legal means- is a hugely traumatic experience.

Hutchinson’s ruling will put the execution team under exceptional duress. They will be tasked with killing eight people, one after another, in a very tight time span. The potential consequences and psychological sequels may prove too much for some of them to bear. Even if the executions were to run flawlessly, such conveyor belt of death would exact a grim psychological toll on the participants. Those involved in the process often experience trouble sleeping, recurring nightmares, and end up developing psychological issues. Two dozen former correctional officers involved in executions have signed a petition pleading with Governor Hutchinson to reconsider his decision.

The legal teams involved will also fall under intense pressure. Their job is to keep the inmates alive for as long as possible, which often involves last minute phone calls, emails, and tense time waiting for replies that could mean the difference between life and death. Several inmates share the same lawyer, which means an even more increased and stressful workload.

Final thought

The issue of killing in the name of law and justice has long been a contentious one. Miscarriages of justice have happened, either purposely, or by mistake. People have spent long decades in death row, and even died, when they didn’t have to.

The morality of death penalty is an issue that will never go away, and whether you think it’s justified or not, it’s your own personal view.

In the midazolam case, there certainly are no moral winners. Death has been trivialized and reduced to an issue of ‘kill before expiration date.’

If Arkansas goes ahead with the executions, life will turn into a pawn of stock taking.