India to Spend $3.5 Billion to Fast-Track Shift to Clean Fuel Cars

Hoping to meet green energy goals and cut down on Indian cities’ air pollution while boosting its flagging auto industry, the Indian government Wednesday announced a $3.5 billion push for electric and hydrogen-fuel powered vehicles.

The plan, which includes incentives for automakers to invest in clean technology cars, will allow India to “leapfrog” to environmentally cleaner vehicles, the cabinet said in a statement while announcing the effort.

“It will herald a new age in higher technology, more efficient and green automotive manufacturing,” the statement said.

Clean fuel vehicles so far make up a fraction of the country’s vehicles, despite ambitious goals announced four years ago for a 100% transition to electric cars by 2030.

This move could, however, give India a head start in an industry that is emerging globally by providing an impetus to manufacturers, according to auto analysts.

“The government is looking more serious and its focus is clearly on green energy. That is why the support it is extending is not for the entire auto industry, but only for those who invest in technological advancement in the sector,” said Awanish Chandra, an auto analyst at Mumbai-based wealth equities firm SMIFS Limited.

The push toward electric vehicles will also contribute significantly to the country’s goal of cutting down carbon emissions — India is the world’s third-biggest carbon emitter.

At the same time, its cities have some of the world’s dirtiest air — India is home to 22 out of 30 cites in the world with the worst air pollution, according to a Greenpeace analysis.

Environmental experts have long said the country’s huge transport sector is a major contributor to the hazardous air in a country where a grossly inadequate public transport infrastructure has increased reliance on private vehicles — Delhi’s roads, for example, are crammed with more than 12 million vehicles.

Along with its big push toward solar energy, the latest initiative will help, according to Amit Kumar, a former senior director with The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

“Definitely this is the right direction to go. We have to focus on cutting down vehicle emissions whether with electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles to meet our green energy goals,” he said.

India is on track to achieve its Paris Agreement targets to cut carbon emissions well before the target date of 2030, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said earlier this year.

 

However, auto analyst Chandra said he does not expect the transition to electric vehicles to happen in a big way for several years. 

“Petrol and diesel cars are here to stay for at least 10 years, but the world is moving towards electric vehicles, so we should not be lagging. The support from the government will incentivize companies to make the investment,” he said.

The government says it expects to generate about $5.8 billion in new investment and create 750,000 jobs in a sector that contributes about $100 billion to the country’s gross domestic product.

There have been reports that electric car pioneer Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. plans to enter India, while domestic manufacturers have also said they plan to make big investments to make the shift to electric cars.

India has emerged as one of the world’s major automobile manufacturing hubs in recent decades but the sector has struggled in recent years as an economy that was faltering even before the pandemic depressed demand.

 

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Chinese Astronauts Return after 90 Days Aboard Space Station

A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after a 90-day stay aboard their nation’s first space station in China’s longest mission yet.  

 

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship just after 1:30 p.m. (0530 GMT) after having undocked from the space station Thursday morning.  

 

State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert where it was met by helicopters and off-road vehicles. Minutes later, a crew of technicians began opening the hatch of the capsule, which appeared undamaged.  

 

The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule to allow them time to readjust to Earth’s gravity after three months of living in a weightless environment. The three were due to fly to Beijing on Friday.

 

“With China’s growing strength and the rising level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe there will even more astronauts who will set new records,” mission commander Nie told CCTV.  

 

After launching on June 17, the three astronauts went on two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

 

While few details have been made public by China’s military, which runs the space program, astronaut trios are expected to be brought on 90-day missions to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional.  

 

The government has not announced the names of the next set of astronauts nor the launch date of Shenzhou-13.

 

China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.  

 

China’s space program has advanced at a measured pace and has largely avoided many of the problems that marked the U.S. and Russian programs that were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.  

 

That has made it a source of enormous national pride, complementing the country’s rise to economic, technological, military and diplomatic prominence in recent years under the firm rule of the Communist Party and current leader Xi Jinping.  

 

China embarked on its own space station program in the 1990s after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections to the Chinese space program’s secrecy and military backing.  

 

China has simultaneously pushed ahead with uncrewed missions, placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and, in December, the Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.  

 

China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, with its accompanying Zhurong rover venturing out to look for evidence of life.

 

Another program calls for collecting samples from an asteroid, an area in which Japan’s rival space program has made progress of late.  

 

China also plans to dispatch another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the moon and eventually building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.

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Fighting Fire with Fire in US to Protect Sequoia Trees

With flames advancing toward the signature grove of ancient massive trees in Sequoia National Park, firefighters on Thursday fought fire with fire.

Using firing operations to burn out flammable vegetation and other matter before the wildfire arrives in the Giant Forest is one of several ways firefighters can use their nemesis as a tool to stop, slow or redirect fires.

The tactic comes with considerable risks if conditions change. But it is routinely used to protect communities, homes or valuable resources now under threat from fires, including the grove of about 2,000 massive sequoias, including the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest by volume.

Here’s how it works:

It’s all about the fuel

Three things influence how hot and fast a fire burns: the landscape, with fire burning faster up steep slopes; weather, with winds and dry conditions fanning flames; and fuel, the amount of material that can burn.

The first two can’t be controlled, but there are ways to reduce fuels long before any fire breaks out — or even as one is approaching.

“Of all the things that affect fire behavior, the fuels is really where we can take action,” said Maureen Kennedy, a professor of wildfire ecology at the University of Washington.

Historically, low- to moderate-severity fires every five to 30 years burned out excess brush and timber before deadly fires in the early 20th century led to aggressive firefighting and a U.S. Forest Service policy to suppress all fires by 10 a.m. the day after they were reported.

That led to dense forests of dead trees, fallen logs and overgrown brush that accumulated over the past century, fueling more massive fires.

Slowing fire by creating fire

For centuries, Native Americans have used fire to thin out forests.

Prescribed burns set under favorable weather conditions can help mimic the lower-intensity fires of the past and burn off excess fuels when they are not at risk of getting out of control. If fire eventually burns the area, it will likely do so at lower intensity and with less damage.

 

The idea is the same during a wildfire. Fire chiefs try to take advantage of shifting winds or changing landscapes to burn out an area before the fire gets there, depriving it of the fuel it needs to keep going.

“They’re trying to achieve the same effect,” Kennedy said. “They’re trying to moderate the fire behavior. They’re trying to remove the fuels that make the fire burn so intensely.

Of course, their goal there is to better contain and control the fire and protect the more valuable resources.”

Safely setting mild fires

All wildland firefighters learn about burnout operations in basic training, but it takes a higher level of training to plan and carry out firing operations.

“You need to know how to fight fire before you light fire,” said Paul Broyles, a former chief of fire operations for the National Park Service.

Burning an area between the fire front and a projected point — such as a firebreak or the Giant Forest in Sequoia — requires the right conditions and enough time to complete the burnout before the fire can reach a fire line constructed by firefighters.

 

Often such operations are conducted at night when fires tend to die down or slow their advance as temperatures cool and humidity rises.

The convection of a fire pulls in winds from all direction, which can help. As fires climb steep terrain, burnouts are sometimes set on the other side of a ridge so any embers will land in an area where dry grasses and brush have already burned.

The firing operations require a crew making sure the fire does not spread in the wrong direction. It may also include bulldozers cutting fire lines or air tankers dropping retardant to further slow the flames.

All of it has to work in sync, Broyles said.

“Air tankers by themselves do not put fires out unless you follow up with personnel,” he said. “It’s like the military. You don’t just bomb the hell out of your enemy without ground troops.”

While burnouts are commonly used, they can backfire if winds shift or they aren’t lit early enough.

“When you put more fire on the ground, there is a risk,” said Rebecca Paterson, a spokesperson for Sequoia National Park. “It carries the potential to create more problems than it solves.”

Broyles said there were times he didn’t get a burnout started in time and firefighters had to be evacuated.

“Fortunately, in my case, we didn’t have any losses,” he said.

Small flames to protect giant sequoias

Firefighters on Thursday were conducting burnout operations in the Giant Forest at almost a micro level, moving from tree to tree, Paterson said. Ground cover and organic debris known as duff close to the trees was being set on fire, allowing the flames to creep away from the tree to create a buffer.

The General Sherman and other massive conifers were wrapped in aluminum blankets to protect them from the extreme heat.

The park was the first in the West to use prescribed fire more than 50 years ago and regularly burns some of its groves to remove fuels. Paterson said that was a reason for optimism.

“Hopefully, the Giant Forest will emerge from this unscathed,” she said. 

 

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France Suspends 3,000 Unvaccinated Health Care Workers

France has suspended 3,000 health care workers who were not inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine by a government-mandated Sept. 15 deadline.

“Several dozens” of the country’s 2.7 million health workers, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday, opted to resign rather than receive the inoculation against the coronavirus.

Tens of thousands health workers were unvaccinated in July when President Emmanuel Macron announced the Sept. 15 deadline to have at least one shot of a vaccine.

Veran said most suspended employees worked in support services, while few doctors and nurses were among the suspended.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Friday that France has reported more than 7 million COVID cases and more than 116,000 COVID deaths.

In the U.S. state of Idaho, hospitals have begun rationing care “because the massive increase of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization in all areas of the state has exhausted existing resources,” the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said in a statement Thursday.

“The situation is dire – we don’t have enough resources to adequately treat the patients in our hospitals, whether you are there for COVID-19 or a heart attack or because of a car accident,” DHW Director Dave Jeppesen said in a statement.

The best way to end the rationing “is for more people to get vaccinated,” Jeppesen said.“It dramatically reduces your chances of having to go to the hospital if you do get sick from COVID-19.”

The Intenational Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization have met with the major COVID vaccine manufacturers to devise strategies to improve vaccine access for low- and middle-income countries.

The goal of the coalition is to vaccinate at least 40% of people in every country by the end of this year and at least 60% by mid-2022.

WHO said the 2021 target is “a critical milestone to end the pandemic and for global economic recovery.” 

 

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Biden Slams Opponents of Vaccine Mandate

A growing number of Republicans, including state governors, have vowed to mount legal challenges against President Joe Biden’s sweeping measures to compel workers and federal employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has the story.

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All-Tourist Spaceflight, and Beauty Tips from the ISS

Another commercial spaceflight company launches into the space tourism business. Plus, more spacewalks outside the International Space Station, and beauty tips from astronauts on board. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us the Week in Space.

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SpaceX Crew of Amateurs Orbits Earth

The first all-civilian crew of astronauts is now orbiting the Earth after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched them into space in spectacular fashion late Wednesday.

Video from the launch showed the initial fireball light up the night sky as the rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. local time.

The capsule could be seen streaking across the sky as it gained altitude. About 12 minutes into the flight, a bright plume of light appeared as the Dragon capsule separated from the rocket’s second stage and the crew entered orbit, while the reusable first stage made its way back to Earth for a vertical landing on a sea barge. 

The team of four amateur astronauts is led by billionaire e-commerce executive Jared Isaacman, 38, who is paying for the entire trip. 

A SpaceX webcast of the launch showed Isaacman and his crewmates — Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 — strapped into the pressurized cabin of the white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, wearing their flight suits, complete with helmets. 

The spaceship’s trajectory will take it to an altitude of 575 kilometers — deeper into space than the International Space Station. 

After spending three days orbiting the Earth, the Dragon capsule will splash down off the Florida coast. 

In a statement on its website, the U.S. space agency NASA said it was providing some support to SpaceX and the flight of Inspiration4 “on a fully reimbursable, non-interference basis,” including communications, ground control and services through the Kennedy Space Center.

The flight marks the debut of SpaceX owner Elon Musk’s new orbital tourism business. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Radical Action Needed to Prevent Irreversible Climate Change, Scientists Say

Scientists from multiple organizations that monitor and assess the state of the Earth’s climate system warn the world is not on track to meet the target of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

The United in Science 2021 report warns greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are continuing at record levels, committing the planet to dangerous future warming. It notes the last five-year period has been the warmest since record-keeping began in 1850. 

Scientists say rising temperatures due to human activity are causing higher than average temperatures in the Arctic, Europe and Asia. That is increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, wildfires, storms, and other extreme weather events throughout the world. 

Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization Petteri Taalas says weather events that used to happen every 100 years now are happening every 20 years because of climate change. He warns they will occur with even greater frequency in the future if the world does not limit warming to well below two degrees Celsius by mid-century. 

“Now we are heading towards three degrees warming instead of 1.5 to two degrees,” he said.”And it has been shown clearly that it would be beneficial for the welfare of us human beings and the welfare of the biosphere and the planet to reach the lower limit of the Paris Agreement of 1.5 degrees.”

The report notes that COVID-19 has had no impact on climate change. It says pandemic lockdowns and economic slowdowns reduced air pollution for a time, but was only temporary. Now that societies are opening again, it says carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are growing.

Taalas says mitigation measures can reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and reduce climate change, but for this to happen, people must change their daily behavior. 

“If we fail with climate mitigation, we would have a permanent problem for at least hundreds or even thousands of years and both economic and human wellbeing events would be much more dramatic than this COVID pandemic, which has been hitting us all in a dramatic way,” he said.

In a forward to the United in Science report, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns time is running out. He says all countries must commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, backed up by concrete long-term strategies to prevent further irreversible damage.

He says these pledges must be made now for November’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow to be a turning point in the fight for the survival of the planet. 

 

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FDA Says Third Dose of Pfizer Vaccine Boosts Immunity

A review issued Wednesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says a third dose of Pfizer’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine boosts a person’s immunity against the virus, but said the current regimen still provides enough protection against severe illness.

The FDA is considering Pfizer’s request to offer a third shot of its vaccine, which the drugmaker says is needed as its effectiveness wears off between six to eight months after the second dose. Pfizer submitted a preliminary study to the FDA that suggested a third dose of the vaccine given to more than 300 people boosted their immunity levels three to five times higher than after the earlier shots.

Pfizer also cited a study from Israel, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, that showed infection rates were 11 times lower among people age 60 and older who received a third dose of the vaccine. About 1 million people took part in the study.

Pfizer has applied for permission to offer a third dose as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 has triggered a dramatic new surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths around the world.

But the FDA said in its review that recent studies “indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized COVID-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death in the United States.”

The U.S. government drug regulator’s vaccine advisory committee will meet Friday to discuss whether the agency should approve Pfizer’s request. The committee’s recommendation is non-binding, meaning the FDA could approve the third Pfizer dose even if the committee recommends against it.

Both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month recommended a third shot of the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine for some people with weakened immune systems.

The FDA meeting will be held days after an international group of vaccine experts published an essay in The Lancet medical journal in opposition to providing booster shots of current vaccines to the general population.

Experts say recent studies show the current vaccines in use around the world continue to provide strong protection against the virus, including the delta variant, especially against severe illness and hospitalization.

The authors include two key officials in the FDA’s vaccine review office who are leaving their posts before the end of the year. The New York Times recently reported that Dr. Marian Gruber and Dr. Philip Krause are upset over the Biden administration’s recent announcement that booster shots would be offered for some Americans beginning next month, well before the FDA had time to properly review the data.

The authors suggest that modifying the vaccines to match the specific COVID-19 variants is a better approach than providing extra doses of the original vaccine.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, has called on wealthy nations to forgo COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for the rest of the year to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have more access to the vaccine.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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India Approves $3.5 Billion Plan to Boost Clean Fuel Vehicles

India’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved an incentive plan for the automobile sector aimed at boosting production of electric and hydrogen fuel-powered vehicles and promoting the manufacture of drones.

The government will give about $3.5 billion in incentives to auto companies and drone manufacturers over a five-year period, Anurag Thakur, minister of information and broadcasting, told reporters.

“The incentive scheme has been designed to help India become a global player in the automobile sector,” Thakur said, adding it would also boost local manufacturing.

The proposal comes at a time when annual car sales in India have fallen to their lowest in a decade due to the pandemic, which followed an economic slowdown in 2019. Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) make up a fraction of the total.

Several years ago, India was tipped to become the world’s third-largest car market by 2020, after China and the United States, with sales of 5 million a year. Instead, car sales stagnated at around 3 million a year even before the pandemic.

Ford Motor Co. last week joined General Motors and Harley Davidson in retreating from India, where it has accumulated losses of $2 billion. The U.S. automaker said it would stop making cars in India, taking a further $2 billion hit.

The government said in a statement the incentive plan was expected to help attract new investment of about $5.8 billion in the auto sector.

The incentives will range from 8% to 18% of the sales value of the vehicles or components and will be given to companies if they meet certain conditions such as a minimum investment over five years and 10% growth in sales each year.

Carmakers, for instance, would need to invest $272 million over the period, while auto parts companies must invest $34 million, the government said.

The original plan was to spend $8 billion to incentivize auto and auto part makers to build mainly gasoline vehicles and their components for domestic sale and export, with some added benefit for EVs.

However, the scheme’s focus was redrawn to incentivize clean fuel vehicles as Tesla Inc. gears up to enter India.

Auto parts makers will get incentives to produce components for clean cars as well as for investing in advanced technologies like sensors and radars used in connected cars, automatic transmission, cruise control and other electronics.

Sunjay Kapur, president of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India (ACMA), said that with global economies de-risking their supply chains, the scheme will help develop the country into “an attractive alternative source of high-end auto components.”

India sees clean auto technology as central to its strategy to reduce oil dependence and cut debilitating air pollution in its major cities, while also meeting its emissions commitment under the Paris Climate Accord.

Domestic automaker Tata Motors is the largest seller of electric cars in India, with rival Mahindra & Mahindra and motor-bike maker TVS Motor firming up their EV plans. India’s biggest carmaker Maruti Suzuki, however, has no near-term plan to launch EVs.

Girish Wagh, executive director at Tata Motors, said in a statement the scheme would accelerate “the country’s progress toward green mobility” and help attract foreign investment. 

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China Imposes Local Lockdowns as COVID-19 Cases Surge  

China tightened lockdowns and increased orders for mass testing in cities along its coast Wednesday amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

Checks have been set up in toll stations around the city of Putian in Fujian province, with a dozen of them closed entirely. The nearby cities of Xiamen and Quanzhou have also restricted travel as the delta variant spreads through the region.

The National Health Commission on Wednesday said an additional 50 cases had been diagnosed in various parts of Fujian, most of them in the Putian region.

Since the start of the pandemic, first detected in late 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China has imposed strict testing, lockdowns, quarantines and mask-wearing requirements.

Fujian has seen at least 152 new cases in recent days, prompting stay-at-home orders and the closure of entertainment, dining and fitness venues, along with the cancellation of group activities, including those for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival holiday.

Long-distance bus service to other parts of the province has been suspended.

China has largely stopped the spread of COVID-19, but new outbreaks continue to occur in various parts of the country. A delta variant outbreak in July and August spread to several provinces, raising concern about new and more contagious variants.

The National Health Commission says it has administered more than 2 billion doses of vaccine, although the efficacy of domestically developed serums has been called into question, particularly in dealing with the delta variant.

While lockdowns and other stern measures have taken a toll on the economy and daily life, most of the country has overcome the impact of the initial outbreak.

Authorities are taking no chances, however. The discovery of a suspected case in Beijing’s eastern Chaoyang district prompted officials Wednesday to bar residents of a high-rise community from leaving their apartments, according to the newspaper Health Times, which is published by the ruling Communist Party.

Students and teachers have also been encouraged to avoid traveling during the upcoming three-day Mid-Autumn Festival, beginning Sunday, and the October 1-7 National Day vacation.

“Even with 91% of students and teachers vaccinated nationwide, it is still recommended students do not leave their home provinces and stay on guard,” Wang Dengfeng, head of the COVID-19 prevention office at the Ministry of Education, was quoted as saying by the official China Daily newspaper.

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SpaceX Set for Launch of First All-Civilian Crew Bound for Orbit

The latest in a recent line of billionaire space enthusiasts prepared for liftoff Wednesday along with three other private citizens aboard a SpaceX rocket ship, aiming to become the first all-civilian crew launched into Earth’s orbit.The quartet of amateur space travelers, led by Jared Isaacman, the American founder and chief executive of e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments, were due for blastoff as early as 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.The flight, with no professional astronauts accompanying SpaceX’s paying customers, is expected to last about three days from liftoff to splashdown in the Atlantic.”Everything is go for launch,” SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker declared about 3½ hours before launch time in a SpaceX webcast of pre-liftoff activities.Trip from hangarA short time earlier, Isaacman, 38, and his crewmates — Sian Proctor, 51, Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and Chris Sembroski, 42 — strolled out of a SpaceX hangar waiving to cheering crowds of family, friends and well-wishers.From there, they were driven in two automobiles across the space center complex to a support building, where they donned the black-and-white spacesuits they will wear for liftoff.They then headed to the launch pad to board a gleaming white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, perched atop one of the company’s reusable Falcon 9 rockets and fitted with a special observation dome in place of the usual docking hatch.This marks the debut flight of SpaceX owner Elon Musk’s new orbital tourism business, and a leap ahead of competitors likewise offering rides on rocket ships to customers willing to pay a small fortune for the exhilaration — and bragging rights — of spaceflight.Isaacman has paid an undisclosed sum to fellow billionaire Musk to send himself and his three crewmates aloft. Time magazine has put the ticket price for all four seats at $200 million.The mission, called Inspiration4, was conceived by Isaacman mainly to raise awareness and support for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee.The Inspiration4 crew of Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux are seen in a picture obtained by Reuters, Sept. 15, 2021.Inspiration4 is aiming for an orbital altitude of 575 kilometers (360 miles) above Earth, higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope. At that height, the Crew Dragon will circle the globe once every 90 minutes at a speed of 27,360 kilometers per hour (17,000 mph), or roughly 22 times the speed of sound.Rival companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin inaugurated their own private-astronaut services this summer, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4’s spaceflight profile.SpaceX experienceSpaceX already ranks as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. Two of its Dragon capsules are already docked there.The Inspiration4 crew will have no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which will be operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though two crew members are licensed pilots.Isaacman, who is rated to fly commercial and military jets, has assumed the role of mission “commander,” while Proctor, a geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate, has been designated as the mission “pilot.”Rounding out the crew are “chief medical officer” Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor-turned St. Jude physician assistant, and mission “specialist” Sembroski, a U.S. Air Force veteran and aerospace data engineer.The four crewmates have spent five months in rigorous preparations, including altitude fitness, centrifuge (G-force), microgravity and simulator training, emergency drills, classroom work and medical exams.Inspiration4 officials have said the mission is more than a joyride. Once in orbit, the crew will perform a series of medical experiments with “potential applications for human health on Earth and during future spaceflights,” the group said in media materials. Biomedical data and biological samples, including ultrasound scans, will also be collected from crew members before, during and after the flight.”The crew of Inspiration4 is eager to use our mission to help make a better future for those who will launch in the years and decades to come,” Isaacman said in a statement.
 

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California Grove of Giant Sequoias Threatened by Wildfire

One of California’s most famous groves of giant sequoias is threatened by a small but intense wildfire burning in Sequoia National Park, officials said Wednesday. The roughly 7,000-acre KNP fire complex is burning about a mile away from the Giant Forest, home to the largest tree on earth by volume, dubbed General Sherman, said Rebecca Paterson, a public information officer for the National Park Service in Three Rivers, near where the fire is burning. About 115 employees have been evacuated from the park, along with residents of the eastern part of the town, Paterson said. The park was closed Tuesday as the fire began to threaten the Giant Forest, one of about 30 such groves and most visited, she said. FILE – A tourist stands next to the General Sherman giant sequoia at Sequoia National Park in California, March 9, 2014.The fires making up the complex grew significantly on Tuesday with zero containment, the federal InciWeb fire information system said Wednesday. The complex, made of two blazes that are burning near each other, was started by lightning strikes on September 10. It is burning in steep canyons, fueled by dry timber and chaparral. Dry conditions and winds of up to 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph) may help the fire expand in coming days, the InciWeb system said. Air quality in the area is poor, and parts of Three Rivers where people have not been ordered to leave have been warned to be ready to evacuate, Paterson said. The National Park Service has been conducting prescribed burns in the area, which officials hope will ameliorate the impact on the giant sequoias if the complex does reach them, she said. Sequoias depend on fire as part of their life cycle, but some massive, intense fires fueled by climate change may do more damage than in the past. “Even if fire does reach the Giant Forest, that does not mean it will be devastating once it gets there,” Paterson said. Three Rivers is near the Ash Mountain Main Entrance to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to the town’s website. It is home to about 2,400 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 
 

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 Iceland Home to World’s Largest Plant to Remove Carbon from Air

Iceland is now the home of the world’s largest direct air capture and storage plant of carbon dioxide. The plant aims to remove 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide – one of the main contributors to global warming – from the air each year, as VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.Producer: Rob Raffaele.

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African Leaders Discuss Ways to Minimize Impact of Climate Change 

High-level African officials met virtually this week to discuss the challenges Africa faces in trying to manage a growing population amid climate change. The conference was aimed at identifying ways African governments can manage these pressures to minimize or avoid conflict.Africa generates about 3% percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the lowest of any continent. But it’s more vulnerable than any other region in the world, since Africans depend so heavily on their natural environment for food, water and medicine.Speaking at a virtual conference Tuesday on climate, conflict and demographics in Africa, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said African governments need to keep the climate in mind as they try to boost their economies.“Our first obligation for us and for African countries must always be to ensure the well-being of our people through access to development services, including electricity, health care, education, safe jobs and a safe environment, including access to clean cooking fuels. We must prioritize solutions that align the development and climate agenda, and that is absolutely important,” said Osinbajo.The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, based in Brussels, says that in 2019, Africa recorded 56 extreme weather events compared to 45 in the previous year.The extreme weather patterns affected the lives of 16.6 million people in 29 countries. At least 13 million of them were from five countries: Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.West Africa had fewer weather-related catastrophes but is feeling the effects of global warming just the same.Ghana environment minister Kwaku Afriyie explains how climate change has impacted agricultural lands in the country.”The harsh and deteriorating climate conditions in northern Ghana undoubtedly energized region-growing food insecurity and seasonal north-to-south migration. And besides, increasing of floods and protracted drought lead to displacement of people.  Statistics show that over the last few years, there has been a new internal displacement which has occurred in Ghana due to climate-induced disasters and even beyond our borders,” he said.The U.N. special representative to the African Union, Hannah Tetteh, said the continent needs to improve cross-border information-sharing and cooperation to handle climate-related crises.“The challenge has not been that we haven’t developed yet these structures. The challenge has been we have not utilized them yet effectively, and that goes to issues of national sovereignty and the unwillingness of member states to have others, as it were, take an active interest and maybe recommend the things that need to be done in order to respond to a particular crisis. And if we recognize we are all in this together, then that certainly has to change,” she said. As for specific suggestions, Osinbajo suggested governments encourage greater use of natural gas and plant more trees to maintain forests that can soak up carbon dioxide and prevent it from warming the atmosphere.

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EU Pledges 200 Million Doses of COVID-19 Vaccines to Low-Income Nations

The European Union is pledging to donate 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to low-income countries by mid-2022. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the pledge Wednesday in Strasbourg, France during her annual State of the European Union speech before the European Parliament. Von der Leyen said the 200 million doses the EU plans to contribute is in addition to an earlier promise of 250 million doses, which she described as “an investment in solidarity, and it is an investment in global health.” Von der Leyen said “the scale of injustice and the level of urgency is obvious” with less than 1% of all global doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in low- and middle-income countries.  “Let’s do everything possible so that it does not turn into a pandemic of the non-vaccinated,” she told the EU lawmakers. US Army requirementMeanwhile, U.S. Army officials issued a mandatory vaccination order for all uniformed personnel.  Officials said Tuesday that the Army expects all active-duty soldiers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by December 15, while imposing a deadline of June 30, 2022 for all Reserve and National Guard soldiers.The statement said soldiers who refuses the vaccine will “be first counseled by their chain of command and medical providers,” but warns that if they continue to refuse and have not been exempted from the vaccine, they will be suspended from their duties or even dismissed from the service.   Alaska situation
In the United States, the largest hospital in the remote northwest state of Alaska announced Tuesday that it has begun rationing care due to a raging outbreak of new COVID-19 infections. Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, said Tuesday it is now operating under a policy of “crisis standard of care,” meaning the hospital is unable to provide an equal quality of medical care to all patients. The hospital said in a statement that an overflow of COVID-19 patients in its emergency room has left other patients waiting in their cars for hours before they are seen by a doctor for urgent care.   Providence Alaska Medical Center joins a growing number of hospitals across the U.S. who have been forced to ration or even deny medical care to their communities as COVID-19 patients fill their halls beyond capacity. Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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