Saturday, November 26, 2011

NASA launches super-size rover to Mars: 'Go, Go!'

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer, NASA's Curiosity rover, rocketed toward Mars on Saturday on a search for evidence that the red planet might once have been home to itsy-bitsy life.
It will take 8½ months for Curiosity to reach Mars following a journey of 354 million miles.
An unmanned Atlas V rocket hoisted the rover, officially known as Mars Science Laboratory, into a cloudy late morning sky. A Mars frenzy gripped the launch site, with more than 13,000 guests jamming the space center for NASA's first launch to Earth's next-door neighbor in four years, and the first send-off of a Martian rover in eight years.
NASA astrobiologist Pan Conrad, whose carbon compound-seeking instrument is on the rover, had a shirt custom made for the occasion. Her bright blue, short-sleeve blouse was emblazoned with rockets, planets and the words, "Next stop Mars!"
Conrad jumped, cheered and snapped pictures as the rocket blasted off a few miles away. So did Los Alamos National Laboratory's Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist in charge of Curiosity's rock-zapping laser machine, called ChemCam.
Wiens shouted "Go, Go, Go!" as the rocket soared. "It was beautiful," he later observed, just as NASA declared the launch a full success.
The 1-ton Curiosity — as large as a car — is a mobile, nuclear-powered laboratory holding 10 science instruments that will sample Martian soil and rocks, and analyze them right on the spot. There's a drill as well as the laser-zapping device.
NASA's Mars exploration program director, Doug McCuistion, called it "the monster truck of Mars."
"It's an enormous mission. It's equivalent of three missions, frankly, and quite an undertaking," said an ecstatic McCuistion. "Science fiction is now science fact. We're flying to Mars. We'll get it on the ground and see what we find."
The primary goal of the $2.5 billion mission is to see whether cold, dry, barren Mars might have been hospitable for microbial life once upon a time — or might even still be conducive to life now. No actual life detectors are on board; rather, the instruments will hunt for organic compounds.
Curiosity's 7-foot arm has a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian red rock, and the 7-foot mast on the rover is topped with high-definition and laser cameras. No previous Martian rover has been so sophisticated or capable.
With Mars the ultimate goal for astronauts, NASA also will use Curiosity to measure radiation at the red planet. The rover also has a weather station on board that will provide temperature, wind and humidity readings; a computer software app with daily weather updates is planned.
The world has launched more than three dozen missions to the ever-alluring Mars, which is more like Earth than the other solar-system planets. Yet fewer than half those quests have succeeded.
Just two weeks ago, a Russian spacecraft ended up stuck in orbit around Earth, rather than en route to the Martian moon Phobos.
"Mars really is the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system," said NASA's Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator for science. "It's the death planet, and the United States of America is the only nation in the world that has ever landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars, and now we're set to do it again."
Curiosity's arrival next August will be particularly hair-raising.
In a spacecraft first, the rover will be lowered onto the Martian surface via a jet pack and tether system similar to the sky cranes used to lower heavy equipment into remote areas on Earth.
Curiosity is too heavy to use air bags like its much smaller predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, did in 2004. Besides, this new way should provide for a more accurate landing.
Astronauts will need to make similarly precise landings on Mars one day.
Curiosity will spend a minimum of two years roaming around Gale Crater, chosen as the landing site because it's rich in minerals. Scientists said if there is any place on Mars that might have been ripe for life, it would be there.
The rover — 10 feet long and 9 feet wide — should be able to go farther and work harder than any previous Mars explorer because of its power source: 10.6 pounds of radioactive plutonium. The nuclear generator was encased in several protective layers in case of a launch accident.
NASA expects to put at least 12 miles on the odometer, once the rover sets down on the Martian surface.
"I expect the public to have images, vistas, that we've never seen before," McCuistion said. "Those first images are going to just be stunning, I believe. It will be like sitting in the bottom of the Grand Canyon."
This is the third astronomical mission to be launched from Cape Canaveral by NASA since the retirement of the venerable space shuttle fleet this summer. The Juno probe is en route to Jupiter, and twin spacecraft named Grail will arrive at Earth's moon on New Year's Eve and Day.
NASA hails this as the year of the solar system.
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Online:
NASA: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

Iran threatens to hit Turkey if US, Israel attack

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran will target NATO's missile defense installations in Turkey if the U.S. or Israel attacks the Islamic Republic, a senior commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saturday.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guards' aerospace division, said the warning is part of a new defense strategy to counter what he described as an increase in threats from the U.S. and Israel.
Tensions have been rising between Iran and the West since the release of a report earlier this month by the International Atomic Energy Agency that said for the first time that Tehran was suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose was the development of nuclear arms.
The U.S. and its Western allies suspect Iran of trying to produce atomic weapons, and Israel, which views Tehran as an existential threat, has warned of a possible strike on Iran's nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
"Should we be threatened, we will target NATO's missile defense shield in Turkey and then hit the next targets," the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Hajizadeh as saying.
Tehran says NATO's early warning radar station in Turkey is meant to protect Israel against Iranian missile attacks if a war breaks out with the Jewish state. Ankara agreed to host the radar in September as part of NATO's missile defense system aimed at countering ballistic missile threats from neighboring Iran.
A military installation in the Turkish town of Kurecik, some 435 miles (700 kilometers) west of the Iranian border, has been designated as the radar site, according to Turkish government officials.
Hajizadeh said the United States also plans to install similar stations in Arab states south of Iran. He said increasing threats has made Iran alter it military defense strategy.
"Based on orders from the exalted commander in chief, we will respond to threats with threats," he was quoted as saying.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, is also commander in chief of Iran's armed forces.
Also Saturday, the chief of Iran's elite Quds Force said he doesn't fear assassination and is ready for "martyrdom." He warned Washington of serious consequences if it does not stop threatening the Islamic Republic.
The comments by Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani were published in several Iranian newspapers. The Quds Force is the special foreign operations unit of the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard, and Soleimani is a key figure in Iran's military establishment but rarely speaks in public.
"Oh, God, bestow upon me martyrdom in Your path by the hands of enemies ... The U.S. must know that when a glass is broken, it becomes sharper," he told a gathering of militiamen in the southeastern Iranian town of Kerman.
Tensions have increased in recent weeks between Iran and the U.S., with several American neoconservatives urging the Obama administration to use covert action against Iran and kill some of its top officials, including Soleimani.
The force has been accused by the Americans of involvement in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Two men, including an alleged member of Iran's Quds Force, have been charged in New York federal court in the case.
Iran has dismissed the American claims as a "foolish plot", saying U.S. officials have offered no proof.

Cuba repatriates three shipwrecked US sailors

Cuba has repatriated three Americans picked up recently in Cuban territorial waters after their sailboat ran aground, diplomatic sources said Friday.
"We can confirm the handover and return of three people," a spokeswoman for the US Interests Section in Havana said without providing more details. Cuban authorities and the official press were silent on the matter.
The US-based website http://cafefuerte.com identified the three as Derek Shaeffer, 39, Eric Foor, 21, and another unnamed, and said they flew to Miami on Sunday.
The website said the three were sailing to Jamaica when they ran aground on a coral reef and were spotted by the Cuban coast guard around November 10.
The outlet noted that in September Cuban turned over to US authorities two fugitives from US justice -- Denis Catania, 49, and Diana Camacho, 26.
Only a few US nationals are in Cuban prisons, and most of those are for crimes related to drug or people trafficking.
An exception is US government contractor Allan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing sophisticated communications gear to opponents of the government.
Despite US demands for Gross' immediate and unconditional release, Cuban authorities have firmly refused and countered by demanding the release of five Cubans who were imprisoned in the United States for espionage.
One of them was freed last month after serving his prison term, but he must remain in the United States for three years under the terms of his parole.
                                                                                      
U.S. Softball Ambassadors to Cuba

2 of 3 arrested US students leave Egypt

CAIRO (AP) — Two of three American students arrested during a protest in Cairo caught flights out of Egypt early Saturday, and the third was scheduled to leave later in the morning, according to an airport official and an attorney for one of the trio.
The three Americans were arrested on the roof of a university building near Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square last Sunday. Officials accused them of throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters.
Luke Gates, 21, left Cairo Saturday morning on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, an airport official said in Cairo. Gregory Porter, 19, also left the country, his attorney said.
All three were expected to have departed on separate flights by later Saturday morning, the airport official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
An Egyptian court ordered the release of Gates, Porter and 19-year-old Derrik Sweeney on Thursday. All were studying at the American University in Cairo.
Attorney Theodore Simon, who represents Porter, a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said police escorted the three students to the Cairo airport Friday. Simon later said his client was on a flight.
"I am pleased and thankful to report that Gregory Porter is in the air. He has departed Egyptian airspace and is on his way home," Simon said, though he declined to say when Porter was expected back in the U.S.
Simon said he and Porter's mother both spoke by phone with the student, who is from the Philadelphia suburb of Glenside.
"He clearly conveyed to me ... that he was OK," Simon told the AP.
Gates is a student at Indiana University. It wasn't clear when he was expected back in the U.S.
Joy Sweeney told the AP her son, a 19-year-old Georgetown University student from Jefferson City, Missouri, would fly from Frankfurt to Washington, then on to St. Louis. She said family will meet him when he arrives late Saturday.
"I am ecstatic," Sweeney said Friday. "I can't wait for him to get home tomorrow night. I can't believe he's actually going to get on a plane. It is so wonderful."
Sweeney said she had talked with her son Friday afternoon and "he seemed jubilant."
"He thought he was going to be able to go back to his dorm room and get his stuff," she said. "We said, 'No, no, don't get your stuff, we just want you here.'"
She said American University will ship his belongings home.
Sweeney had earlier said she did not prepare a Thanksgiving celebration this week because the idea seemed "absolutely irrelevant" while her son still was being held.
"I'm getting ready to head out and buy turkey and stuffing and all the good fixings so that we can make a good Thanksgiving dinner," she said Friday.
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Associated Press writers Sandy Kozel in Washington; Kathy Matheson and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia; and Dana Fields in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

Pakistan: 25 troops dead in NATO helicopter attack

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan on Saturday accused NATO helicopters of firing on an army checkpoint in the northwest and killing 25 soldiers, then closed a key border crossing used by the coalition to supply its troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
The alleged Friday night attack was a major blow to already strained relations between Pakistan and U.S.-led forces fighting in Afghanistan. The incident came a little over a year after U.S. helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border, whom the pilots mistook for insurgents. Pakistan responded by closing the Torkham border crossing to NATO supplies — as it did Saturday — for 10 days until the U.S. apologized.
In a statement sent to reporters, the Pakistan military blamed NATO for Friday's attack in the Mohmand tribal area, saying the helicopters "carried out unprovoked and indiscriminate firing." It said casualties have been reported but details were still coming.
Pakistan state TV said the helicopters killed 25 Pakistani soldiers. Two government officials in Mohmand confirmed the death toll and said 14 other soldiers were wounded.
The helicopters attacked the checkpoint twice, and two officers were among the dead, said a government official in Mohmand and a security official in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan's northwest.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
NATO officials in Kabul said Saturday morning that they were aware of the incident, and would release more information after they were able to gather more facts about what happened.
The governor of Pakistan's northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province criticized the incident, calling it "an attack on Pakistani sovereignty."
A Pakistani customs official told The Associated Press that he received verbal orders Saturday to stop all NATO supplies from crossing the border through Torkham in either direction. A transporter who runs a terminal at the border where NATO trucks park before they cross confirmed the closure. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Torkham runs through the famed Khyber Pass and is the main crossing to Afghanistan from Pakistan, the country through which NATO ships about 30 percent of the non-lethal supplies used by its Afghan-based forces.
The checkpoint that was attacked had been recently set up in Mohmand's Salala village by the army to stop Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan from crossing the border and staging attacks, said two local government administrators, Maqsood Hasan and Hamid Khan.
The military has blamed Pakistani Taliban militants and their allies for killing dozens of security forces in such cross-border attacks since the summer. Pakistan has criticized Afghan and foreign forces for not doing enough to stop the attacks, which it says have originated from the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. The U.S. has largely pulled out of these provinces, leaving the militants in effective control of many areas along the border.
The Afghan-Pakistan border is a constant flashpoint, with both nations and the U.S. exchanging accusations of violations and of negligence in preventing cross-border attacks. The border is disputed in many areas and not clearly marked, adding to the difficulty.
The U.S. and Afghan governments have long accused Pakistan of not doing enough to prevent its territory from being used by Afghan Taliban militants and their allies to stage attacks against forces in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government blamed Pakistan for firing hundreds of rockets into eastern Afghanistan earlier this year that killed dozens of people. The Pakistan army has denied it intentionally fired rockets into Afghanistan, but acknowledged that several rounds fired at militants conducting cross-border attacks may have landed over the border.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have largely focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border. The Afghan Taliban aims to topple the U.S.-allied government in Kabul, and the Pakistani Taliban has tried to do the same in Islamabad.
Frustration about cross-border attacks in both directions has contributed to deteriorating ties between the U.S. and Pakistan. The relationship took an especially hard hit from the covert U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town on May 2. The Pakistanis were outraged that they were not told about the operation beforehand, and now are angered even more than before by U.S. violations of the country's sovereignty.
The U.S. helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers on Sept. 30 of last year took place south of Mohmand in the Kurram tribal area. A joint U.S.-Pakistan investigation found that Pakistani soldiers fired at the two U.S. helicopters prior to the attack, a move the investigation team said was likely meant to notify the aircraft of their presence after they passed into Pakistani airspace several times.
Pakistan moved swiftly after the attack to close Torkham to NATO. Suspected militants took advantage of the impasse to launch attacks against stranded or rerouted trucks carrying NATO supplies.
Senior U.S. diplomatic and military officials eventually apologized for the attack, saying it could have been prevented with greater coordination between the U.S. and Pakistan. Pakistan responded by reopening the border crossing.
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Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Anwarullah Khan contributed to this report from Khar, Pakistan.