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Modi: India’s First Astronauts Will Inspire Nation

New Delhi — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday toasted the four astronauts preparing for the nation’s first crewed orbital mission, saying the latest advance in spacefaring would inspire the next generation.

“The countdown of the rocket inspires thousands of children in India, and those making paper planes today dream of becoming scientists like you,” Modi said. 

The Gaganyaan — or “Skycraft” — mission is slated to launch the astronauts into Earth’s orbit in 2025, an important measure of the Indian Space Research Organization’s technical capabilities.

“All of you are opening new doors of future possibilities,” Modi told ISRO scientists on Tuesday.

Visiting the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in the southern state of Kerala, Modi presented “astronaut wings” to the four men: Ajit Krishnan, Prashanth Balakrishnan Nair, Angad Pratap and Shubhanshu Shukla.

“They are not just four names or individuals, they are four ‘shakti’ [the Hindu goddess of power] carrying the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians into space,” he added.

Gaganyaan is the first mission of its kind for India and comes with an estimated price tag of $1.08 billion, according to ISRO.

India plans to send the quartet beyond the reaches of Earth’s atmosphere for three days before bringing them back with a soft landing in its territorial waters.

Modi has previously announced plans to launch a space station by 2034, and to put people on the moon by 2040.

In August, India became just the fourth nation to land an unmanned craft on the moon, after Russia, the United States and China.

The following month, it launched a probe to observe the outermost layers of the sun from solar orbit.

India’s space program has grown considerably in size and momentum since it first sent a probe to orbit the moon in 2008, and it has steadily matched the achievements of established spacefaring powers, at a fraction of the cost.

India can keep costs low by copying and adapting existing technology, and tapping an abundance of highly skilled engineers who earn a fraction of their foreign counterparts’ wages. 

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Renewal of U.S.-China Science and Tech Pact Faces Hurdles

STATE DEPARTMENT — With a science and technology agreement between the United States and People’s Republic of China due to expire Tuesday, the State Department said it is negotiating to “amend, extend, and strengthen protections within” the agreement but declined to specify if the U.S. would extend the deal.

“We are not able to provide information at this time on specific U.S. negotiating positions or on whether the agreement will be extended past its current expiration date,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

The Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement is a framework for U.S. governmental collaborations with China in science and technology.  

U.S. officials have said the STA provides consistent standards for government-to-government scientific cooperation between the U.S. and China.  

While the agreement supports scientific collaboration in areas that benefit the United States, U.S. officials acknowledge the challenges posed by China’s national science and technology strategies and its domestic legal framework.

Critics, including U.S. lawmakers, point out China’s restrictions on data and a lack of transparency in sharing scientific findings. Washington is also concerned about personal safety of American scientists who travel to China, as well as Beijing’s potential military application of shared research.

A report by Congressional Research Service said China’s cooperation under the agreement has not been consistent. For example, “China reportedly withheld avian influenza strains required for U.S. vaccines and in 2019, cut off U.S. access to coronavirus research, including U.S.-funded work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said the CRS.

Advocates for renewing the agreement want to maintain some level of official and unofficial contacts amid strained relationship between the two countries.  

During a recent discussion hosted by the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), panelists said the STA is “important symbolically” and gives confidence to researchers on both sides to deepen their engagement with counterparts.

“In the event of the agreement’s non-renewal, the mutual confidence that sustains and underpins collaboration is bound to suffer,” said ICAS in its post-event summary.

Dean Cheng, a senior advisor to the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the American system is far more open, so China will typically be able to gather information regardless of whether there is an agreement.

“The STA is no guarantee that American scientists will, in fact, be able to access Chinese research, information, or scholars, whereas the Chinese side will use the STA as a means of establishing an even greater presence in the U.S.,” Cheng told VOA, adding the “strategic advantage” under the deal will likely be with the PRC.

The STA was originally signed in 1979 by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter and then-PRC leader Deng Xiaoping. Under the agreement, the two countries cooperate in fields including agriculture, energy, space, health, environment, earth sciences and engineering, as well as educational and scholarly exchanges.

U.S.-China science and technology activity increased in November 2009 with new agreements on joint projects in electric vehicles, or EVs, renewable energy, and the creation of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, or CERC, a 10-year research effort between the U.S. Department of Energy and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The agreement has been renewed approximately every five years since its inception, with the most recent five-year extension occurring in 2018. Last August, it received a six-month extension as officials from the two countries undertook negotiations to amend and strengthen the terms.

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2 Exiled Chinese Bloggers Warn of Police Interrogating Their Followers

SHANGHAI — Two prominent Chinese bloggers in exile said that police were investigating their millions of followers on international social media platforms, in an escalation of Beijing’s attempts to clamp down on critical speech even outside of the country’s borders.

Former state broadcaster CCTV journalist Wang Zhi’an and artist-turned-dissident Li Ying, both Chinese citizens known for posting uncensored Chinese news, said in separate posts Sunday that police were interrogating people who followed them on social media, and urged followers to take precautions such as unfollowing their accounts, changing their usernames, avoiding Chinese-made phones and preparing to be questioned.

Li Ying, known as Teacher Li, came to prominence as a source of news about the White Paper protests, a rare moment of anti-government protests in mainland China in 2022. Teacher Li’s account on X, formerly known as Twitter, @whyyoutouzhele now posts news and videos submitted by users, which cover everything from local protests to viral videos of real-life incidents that are censored on the Chinese internet.

In a post Sunday evening, Teacher Li suggested people unfollow his account. “Currently, the public security bureau is checking my 1.6 million followers and people in the comments, one by one.”

Li shared screenshots of private messages he received from followers over the past few months, which claimed that police had interrogated individuals, and that one person had even lost their job.

As of Monday afternoon, Li had dropped down to 1.4 million followers on X.

International social media platforms like X and YouTube are blocked in China but can still be accessed with software that circumvents the country’s censorship systems.

Wang, who has a million subscribers on X and 1.2 million followers on YouTube, also told his fans to unsubscribe.

Li, Wang and the Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Over the past decade, Beijing has cracked down on dissent on Chinese social media, with thousands of censors employed both at private companies and with the Chinese state.

Chinese users expressing critical opinions online have reported being called, harassed or interrogated by police, with some called in for questioning and ordered to take down certain posts or delete their accounts. In some cases, users have been detained, with some spending up to two weeks in jail and a small number sentenced to years in prison.

More recently, Beijing has extended its reach to tracking non-Chinese platforms such as Facebook, Telegram and X. A recent leak of documents from I-Soon, a private contractor linked to China’s top policing agency and other parts of its government, described tools used by Chinese police to curb dissent on overseas social media, including one tool specifically created to surveil users on X.

Hackers also created tools for police to hack email inboxes and unmask anonymous users of X, the documents show. Sometimes, officers sent requests to surveil specific individuals to I-Soon, the leak revealed.

Li said he would not stop posting even if people unfollowed, but he urged his followers to take basic digital safety precautions.

“I don’t want your life to be impacted just because you wanted to understand the real news in China,” Li said, in an additional post. “You only want to understand what’s happening, but the price is quite high

 

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Private US Lunar Lander Will Stop Working Tuesday 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A private U.S. lunar lander is expected to stop working Tuesday, its mission cut short after landing sideways near the south pole of the moon.

Intuitive Machines, the Houston company that built and flew the spacecraft, said Monday it will continue to collect data until sunlight no longer shines on the solar panels. Based on the position of Earth and the moon, officials expect that to happen Tuesday morning. That’s two to three days short of the week or so that NASA and other customers had been counting on.

The lander, named Odysseus, is the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon in more than 50 years, carrying experiments for NASA, the main sponsor. But it came in too fast last Thursday and the foot of one of its six legs caught on the surface, causing it to tumble over, according to company officials.

Based on photos from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter flying overhead, Odysseus landed within 1.5 kilometers of its intended target near the Malapert A crater, just 300 kilometers from the moon’s south pole.

The LRO photos from 90 kilometers up are the only ones showing the lander on the surface, but as little more than a spot in the grainy images. A camera-ejecting experiment by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, to capture images of the lander as they both descended, was called off shortly before touchdown because of a last-minute navigation issue.

According to NASA, the lander ended up in a small, degraded crater with a 12-degree slope. That’s the closest a spacecraft has ever come to the south pole, an area of interest because of suspected frozen water in the permanently shadowed craters there.

NASA, which plans to land astronauts in this region in the next few years, paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to deliver six experiments to the surface. Other customers also had items on board.

Instead of landing upright, the 4.3-meter Odysseus came down on its side, hampering communication with Earth. Some antennas were covered up by the toppled lander, and the ones still exposed ended up near the ground, resulting in spotty communications. The solar panels also ended up much closer to the surface than anticipated, less than ideal in the hilly terrain. Even under the best of circumstances, Odysseus only had a week to operate on the surface before the long lunar night set in.

Since the 1960s, only the U.S., Russia, China, India and Japan have successfully pulled off moon landings, and only the U.S. with crews. Japan’s lander ended up on the wrong side, too, just last month.

Despite its slanted landing, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to join the elite group. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a try last month, but didn’t make it to the moon because of a fuel leak.

Intuitive Machines almost failed, too. Ground teams did not turn on the switch for the lander’s navigating lasers before the Feb. 15 liftoff from Florida. The oversight was not discovered until Odysseus was circling the moon, forcing flight controllers to rely on a NASA laser-navigating device that was on board merely as an experiment.

As it turned out, NASA’s test lasers guided Odysseus to a close to bull’s-eye landing, resulting in the first moon landing by a U.S. spacecraft since the Apollo program.

Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 through 1972. While NASA went on to put an occasional satellite around the moon, the U.S. did not launch another moon-landing mission until last month. Astrobotic’s failed flight was the first under NASA’s program to promote commercial deliveries to the moon.

Both Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic hold NASA contracts for more moon landings.

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Japan Moon Lander Revives After Lunar Night

Tokyo — Japan’s moon lander has produced another surprise by waking up after the two-week lunar night, the country’s space agency said Monday.

The unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) touched down last month at a wonky angle that left its solar panels facing the wrong way.

As the sun’s angle shifted, it came back to life for two days and carried out scientific observations of a crater with a high-spec camera, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.

It went to sleep again as darkness returned and, since it was “not designed for the harsh lunar nights,” JAXA had been uncertain whether it would reawaken.

“Yesterday we sent a command, to which SLIM responded,” JAXA said on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday.

“SLIM succeeded in surviving a night on the Moon’s surface while maintaining its communication function!”

It said that communications were “terminated after a short time, as it was still lunar midday and the temperature of the communication equipment was very high.”

But it added: “Preparations are being made to resume operations when instrument temperatures have sufficiently cooled.”

SLIM, dubbed the “Moon Sniper” for its precision landing technology, touched down within its target landing zone on Jan. 20.

The feat was a win for Japan’s space program after a string of recent failures, making the nation only the fifth to achieve a “soft landing” on the moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India.

But during its descent, the craft suffered engine problems and ended up on its side, meaning the solar panels were facing west instead of up.

The latest news comes after JAXA toasted a successful blast-off for its new flagship H3 rocket on Feb. 17, making it third time lucky after years of delays and two previous failed attempts.

Countries including Russia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are also trying to reach the moon.

The first American spaceship to the moon since the Apollo era, the uncrewed Odysseus lander built by a private company and funded by NASA, landed near the lunar south pole on Thursday.

But its maker said the US spacecraft is probably lying sideways following its dramatic landing, even as ground controllers work to download data and surface photos from it.

Private Japanese firm ispace also attempted to land on the moon last year but the probe suffered a “hard landing” and contact was lost.

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