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Final preparations underway for NASA’s Moon rocket launch

Photo: Jim Watson / AFP

| By AFP | Lucie Aubourg |

After two failed attempts this summer, NASA was busy Monday completing final preparations for the launch of its new mega Moon rocket, now scheduled for early Wednesday from Florida. 

The Artemis 1 mission, a test flight without astronauts, represents the first step in the US space agency’s plan to build a lasting presence on the Moon, and taking lessons from there to prepare for a future voyage to Mars.

Named after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, the new space program comes 50 years after humans last set foot on lunar soil.

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The first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever designed by NASA, is set for Wednesday at 1:04 am local time (0604 GMT), with a possible launch window of two hours.

Countdown has already begun at the storied Kennedy Space Center, where the orange and white behemoth awaits its maiden flight.

The takeoff is scheduled less than a week after the passage of Hurricane Nicole, which the rocket endured outside on its launch pad.

For now, officials are evaluating the risk associated with hurricane damage to a thin strip of caulk-like material called RTV, which encircles the Orion crew capsule atop the rocket, and makes it more aerodynamic.

Teams are looking at whether the RTV could shake loose during launch and pose problems.

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Two fallback dates are possible if needed, on November 19 and 25.

But Mike Sarafin, in charge of the Artemis 1 mission, was optimistic Sunday evening. “I feel good headed into this attempt,” he said.

Far side of Moon

The weather promises to be mild, with a 90 percent chance of favorable conditions during the launch window.

At the end of September, the rocket had to be wheeled back to its assembly building to be sheltered from another hurricane, Ian, postponing the mission by several weeks.

Before these weather setbacks, two launch attempts had to be canceled for technical reasons.

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The first failure was related to a faulty sensor, and the second to a fuel leak when filling the rocket’s tanks. It runs on ultra-cold, ultra-volatile liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

NASA has since replaced a seal and modified its procedures to avoid thermal shock as much as possible, and succeeded in a tank filling test in late September. 

These filling operations are now due to begin Tuesday afternoon, under the orders of Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA’s first female launch director.

About 100,000 people are expected on the coast to watch the launch, with the rocket promising to light up the night sky.

The Orion capsule will be lifted by two boosters and four powerful engines under the core stage, which will detach after only a few minutes.

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After a final push from the upper stage, the capsule will be well on its way, taking several days to reach its destination.

Rather than landing on the Moon, it will assume a distant orbit, venturing 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) beyond Earth’s natural satellite — further than any other habitable spacecraft so far.

Finally, Orion will embark on the return leg of its journey. When passing through the atmosphere, the capsule’s heat shield will need to withstand a temperature half as hot as the Sun’s surface.

If takeoff happens Wednesday, the mission would last 25 and a half days in all, with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

NASA is banking on a successful mission after developing the SLS rocket for more than a decade. It will have invested more than $90 billion in its new lunar program by the end of 2025, according to a public audit.

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Artemis 2 will be almost a replay of the first mission, albeit with astronauts, in 2024. 

Boots on the ground should happen during Artemis 3, no sooner than 2025, with the crew set to include the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.

NASA then wants to launch around one mission per year and build a lunar space station called Gateway. There, humanity must learn to live in deep space and develop the technologies necessary for a round trip to Mars, perhaps in the late 2030s.

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International

Food prices send hunger soaring in Latin America: UN agencies

Photo: AP News

| By AFP |

Rising food prices in Latin America and the Caribbean caused the number of people going hungry in the region to rise by more than 13 million between 2019 and 2021, a United Nations report said Tuesday.

The report by three UN agencies said the region was particularly vulnerable to the global food crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine due to a high reliance on wheat, maize and fertilizer imports.

“The number of people in the region suffering from hunger increased by 13.2 million to 56.5 million,” read the report, released at a press conference in Santiago, Chile.

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In addition, moderate or severe food insecurity affected 267.7 million people — 40.6 percent of the region’s population — in 2021. 

This is “far above the world average” of 29.3 percent, said the report.

“The rise in food inflation and extreme poverty is one of the factors behind the increase in food insecurity and hunger,” said the report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

According to the FAO, food insecurity refers to a lack of regular access to healthy and nutritious food.

“The heavy reliance on imported fertilizers, and fluctuating food prices, have an unavoidable negative impact on livelihoods — mainly of the rural population — and access to healthy food,” said Mario Lubetkin, FAO Assistant Director-General.

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International

Colombia landslide kills 34

Photo: AFP

| By AFP |

Heavy rains in northwest Colombia sent a wall of earth crashing onto a winding road, swallowing up a bus and other vehicles and killing 34 people, emergency services said Monday.

The landslide Sunday evening prompted a large rescue effort, with dozens of people in hard hats using backhoes and excavators to dig through the earth looking for victims.

The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management said the fatalities included eight minors and that nine other people were injured in the disaster in the remote town of Pueblo Rico.

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The bus had set out from the city of Cali with 25 passengers, and traveled 270 kilometers (170 miles) before being hit by the landslide as it passed through the Andes mountain region, civil defense officials said.

Colombian media reported that a child had survived and was pulled from the arms of its mother, who did not make it.

One survivor said the bus driver had at first managed to dodge the worst of the landslide.

“Part of it was coming down and the bus was a little bit back from that. The bus driver was backing up when it all came crashing down,” Andres Ibarguen told radio station Lloro Stereo.

The rainy season that began in August is Colombia’s worst in 40 years, according to the government, causing accidents that have left more than 270 people dead.

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The country has declared a national disaster over the rains linked to the exceptionally long La Nina weather phenomenon, which cools surface temperatures and is currently causing drought and flooding around the globe.

Today, the landslide “puts this town in mourning, tomorrow it could be in another area, because we really have many unstable areas in the country, and the rainy season has not ended,” said Javier Pava of the UNGRD.

The UN’s World Meteorological Organization said last week the La Nina conditions could last until February or March 2023.

In Colombia, the phenomenon has also caused crop damage, compromising food supplies and leading to soaring prices.

In July, three children were killed in northwestern Colombia when a landslide buried a rural school. In February, 14 people died in a mudslide triggered by heavy rains in central-western Risaralda province.

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International

At least 27 killed in Colombia landslide: president

Photo: AFP

| By AFP |

At least 27 people were killed when a landslide engulfed a road in northwest Colombia, trapping people in a bus and other vehicles, said President Gustavo Petro on Monday.

“It is with sadness that I must announce that, so far, 27 people, including three minors, have lost their lives in the tragedy” that struck on Sunday in a remote area of the Pueblo Rico municipality, Petro wrote on Twitter.

On Sunday evening, the president reported three dead, as dozens of rescue workers searched for survivors.

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One survivor said the driver of the bus managed to dodge the worst of the landslide.

“Part of it was coming down and the bus was a little bit back from that. The bus driver was backing up when it all came crashing down,” Andres Ibarguen told radio station Lloro Stereo.

The bus had set out from the city of Cali with 25 passengers, civil defense officials said.

The rainy season that began in August is Colombia’s worst in 40 years, according to the government, causing accidents that have left more than 270 people dead.

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