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Touchdown: Japan probe Hayabusa2 lands on distant asteroid
22 February 2019, 9:25 PM

A Japanese probe sent to collect samples from an asteroid 300 million kilometres away for clues about the origin of life and the solar system landed successfully on Friday, scientists said.

Hayabusa2 touched down briefly on the Ryugu asteroid, fired a bullet into the surface to puff up dust for collection and blasted back to its holding position, said officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

A live webcast of the control room showed dozens of JAXA staff members nervously monitoring data ahead of the touchdown before exploding into applause after receiving a signal from Hayabusa2 that it had landed.

“We made a successful touchdown, including firing a bullet” into the Ryugu asteroid, Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 project manager, told reporters.

“We made the ideal touchdown in the best conditions,” he said.

AFP / Jean Michel CORNU Main stages of Japan’s Hayabusa2 space mission

The complicated procedure took less time than expected and appeared to go without a hitch, said Hayabusa2 mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa.

“I’m really relieved now. It felt very long until the moment the touchdown happened,” he said.

He said the firing of the bullet — the first of three planned in this mission — “will lead to a leap, or new discoveries, in planetary science.”

The asteroid is thought to contain relatively large amounts of organic matter and water from some 4.6 billion years ago when the solar system was born.

During a later mission, Hayabusa2 will eventually fire an “impactor” to blast out material from underneath Ryugu’s surface, allowing the collection of “fresh” materials unexposed to millennia of wind and radiation.

Scientists hope those samples may provide answers to some fundamental questions about life and the universe, including whether elements from space helped give rise to life on Earth.

Queen rocker and space fan Brian May tweeted: “Hurrah. Brilliant success in touchdown on Ryugu.”

– Spinning-top shape –

Communication with Hayabusa2 is cut off at times because its antennas are not always pointed towards Earth and it could take several more days to confirm the bullet was actually fired to allow the collection of samples.

ISAS-JAXA/AFP / Handout Scientists are now poring over the data sent 300 million kilometres back to Earth

The mission has not been completely plain sailing and the probe’s landing was originally scheduled for last year.

But it was pushed back after surveys found the asteroid’s surface was more rugged than initially thought, forcing JAXA to take more time to find a suitable landing site.

The Hayabusa2 mission, with a price tag of around 30 billion yen ($270 million), was launched in December 2014 and is scheduled to return to Earth with its samples in 2020.

Photos of Ryugu — which means “Dragon Palace” in Japanese and refers to a castle at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient Japanese tale — show an asteroid shaped a bit like a spinning top with a rough surface.

Hayabusa2 observes the surface of the asteroid with its camera and sensing equipment but has also dispatched two tiny MINERVA-II rover robots as well as the French-German robot MASCOT to help surface observation.

Scientists have already received data from these probes deployed on the surface of the asteroid.

At about the size of a large fridge, Hayabusa2 is equipped with solar panels and is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa — Japanese for falcon.

That probe returned from a smaller, potato-shaped, asteroid in 2010 with dust samples despite various setbacks during its epic seven-year odyssey and was hailed as a scientific triumph.

Syria force evacuates women, children from IS holdout
22 February 2019, 9:22 PM

US-backed fighters trucked out civilians from the last speck of the Islamic State group’s dying “caliphate” in Syria on Friday, eager to press on with the battle to crush the jihadists.

More than four years after IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, and declared a “caliphate”, they have lost all of it but a tiny patch in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

More than 40 trucks carrying men, women and children left the enclave on Friday, AFP correspondents at a position of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces outside the village reported.

Most were women and children, their clothes caked in dust, but the passengers also included men with their faces wrapped in chequered scarves.

Women clung to the railings of the trucks, while the hair of younger girls blew in the wind, as they left the enclave in the second such large-scale evacuation in three days.

On the back of one of the trucks, three men covered their faces with their hands, apparently not to be caught on camera.

Asked what the situation was like inside IS’s last scrap of territory, a young man replied: “Not good”.

AFP / Simon MALFATTO Last pocket of IS territory in Syria

On the roof of one of the trucks, an old man with a thick white beard wearing a red and white checkered scarf on his head yelled down: “There is an ill man with us.”

SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said more than 2,000 people were estimated to still be inside the pocket, and more trucks were expected to bring them out.

– ‘War or surrender’ –

Once the evacuations have ended, the jihadists will have to decide whether to continue defending the less than half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile) they still hold, he said.

“They will be faced with a choice: war or surrender,” Afrin said.

Earlier on Friday, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said he hoped civilian evacuations could be completed by Saturday.

The Kurdish-led SDF evacuated 3,000 people on Wednesday — mostly women and children — but trucks left near empty on Thursday.

Bali said that screenings had determined most of those evacuated on Wednesday were foreigners.

“The majority are Iraqi and from countries of the former Soviet Union, but there are also Europeans,” he said.

David Eubank, the leader of the Free Burma Rangers aid group, said they included “many French women”, as well as others from Australia, Austria, Germany and Russia, and one woman from Britain.

AFP / Bulent KILIC Those evacuated have also included suspected Islamic State group fighters who are weeded out for detention during screening by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces

Human Rights Watch urged the SDF and the US-led coalition supporting it to make protecting civilians a priority.

“Witnesses described harrowing conditions in the last months, with lack of food and aid forcing them to eat grass and weeds to survive,” it said.

Around 44,000 people — mostly civilians — have streamed out of IS’s shrinking patch territory since early December, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Once the SDF have weeded out potential jihadists from each batch of new arrivals, civilians are trucked further north to Kurdish-run camps for the displaced.

They arrive “extremely hungry and dehydrated” and many of them require urgent medical care, the International Rescue Committee said.

The IRC said 69 people, mostly children, had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving in the past few weeks.

“Two thirds of the deaths are of babies under one year old,” it said, including one who died Friday during the six-hour drive.

– US ‘peacekeepers’ –

AFP / Bulent KILICThe women and children who have escaped the last IS redoubt have been “very hungry and dirty”, aid workers say

The battle for Baghouz is now the only live front in Syria’s war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.

Any SDF victory would accelerate a planned withdrawal of American troops from Syria announced in December by US President Donald Trump.

Syria’s Kurds have expressed fear that a full pullout would leave them exposed to a long threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey.

But the White House said Thursday the US military will keep “a small peacekeeping group of about 200” in Syria after the withdrawal.

The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria welcomed the move.

It is “very important to maintain stability and protect our region from the Turkish threats, and ensure that terrorism will not be back,” foreign affairs official Abdulkarim Omar said.

IS once imposed its brutal ideology on an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, attracting thousands from abroad.

But some of those foreigners have been killed, while the SDF holds hundreds more.

The Kurds have repeatedly urged their governments to take them back, largely without success.

AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN The evacuation route from the last shred of the Islamic State group’s dying “caliphate” runs along a dirt road through the fields to territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces

Syria’s Kurds have requested their repatriation, but foreign governments have been reluctant.

On Thursday, the father of Hoda Muthana, 24, sued to bring her home after the Trump administration declared she was not a US citizen.

Shamima Begum, 19, faced being left stateless after Britain revoked her citizenship, and Bangladesh, where her parents are from, said it not want her.

Beyond Baghouz, IS retains a presence in the vast Syrian desert, and continues to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

Candle
Explainer: why South Africa’s energy generator is in so much trouble
12 February 2019, 6:13 AM
Rod Crompton, University of the Witwatersrand Eskom is by far the largest of South Africa’s many state owned companies. This near monopoly power utility is in crisis. It’s the single largest threat to South Africa’s economy, according to a former minister of finance. The Conversation Africa spoke to Adjunct Professor Rod Crompton about why this is the case and what can be done.

How is power generated and distributed in South Africa?

Electricity markets in most countries consist of three parts: generation, transmission and distribution. Most electricity is generated by using heat to boil water to create steam which in turn spins a turbine that generates electricity.

South Africa’s cheap and abundant coal resources made coal generated electricity an obvious choice for many years. Initially, power stations were owned by municipalities and large mining and industrial concerns. But as the costs of recapitalisation emerged, government was persuaded to take over responsibility for power.

Eskom is among the biggest power utilities in the world, famous for its ability to handle vast tonnages of low grade coal. Eskom accounts for over 90% of power generating capacity. Its power plants are mostly coal with one nuclear station and some pumped storage (water). Only a few minor power generators have remained outside Eskom’s fold.

More recently, international climate change pressure caused government to introduce renewable power generation through bidding rounds. These private investors were given 20 year price guarantees underwritten by government – some at exorbitant prices. Nevertheless, as these technologies became more globally popular, some of them – solar (photo voltaic) and wind power – emerged as the lowest cost generators.

All power generation is tied into Eskom’s national transmission grid that moves electricity from generation stations to demand areas. Transmission is a natural monopoly. If you want to use the transmission grid you need Eskom’s permission.

Transmission lines end where high voltage power is stepped down to distribution networks until it reaches residential customers – at 220 volts. In many areas Eskom sells to municipal distributors.

So, Eskom is a vertically integrated near monopoly responsible for generation, transmission and distribution.

Is this monopoly situation unusual in the 21st century?

In many countries competition between power generators has been encouraged to drive down prices. Transmission, being a natural monopoly, remains just that; but like toll roads they are open to all who obey the “road rules” and pay the toll. The same goes for distribution to a lesser extent.

What’s the trouble with Eskom?

Eskom has two major problems. Its operating costs are too high and it can’t pay its debt. It owes over R400 billion and does not generate enough cash to pay even the interest on its debt. It’s reached the end of the road.

Eskom has been getting steep tariff increases in recent years but these have driven some customers off-grid and shut others down. Eskom’s sales have been declining by about 1% per annum. The less it sells, the higher the tariff it wants, and the less it sells – the utility death spiral.

How did it get here?

The main cause of its troubles is its decision to build two of the biggest coal fired generating plants in the world, (Medupi and Kusile). These plants are running way behind schedule, they’re over budget and the bits that are complete don’t work properly. They are probably the single largest disaster in South Africa’s economic history.

“State capture” (patronage networks), corruption and poor management have led to over staffing and neglected maintenance, resulting in constant breakdowns. Electricity theft, a culture of non-payment and defaulting municipalities have deepened the crisis. Eskom is owed over R30 billion.

What are the answers?

Eskom needs to simultaneously reduce operating costs, increase tariffs and shed a big chunk of its debt. There is no painless way for South Africans to deal with their Eskom crisis. And it can’t wait until the national elections on 8 May 2019.

President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a team of advisers and has announced that Eskom is to be split into three subsidiaries: generation, transmission and distribution. This has been a government policy since 1998. This should increase cost and debt transparency and may lead to increased efficiencies, especially if competition is allowed.


Read more: Why South Africa’s latest plan for state-owned power giant could work


Ramaphosa hinted that Eskom will be allowed to invest in renewables, possibly to absorb surplus staff and avoid retrenchments that have been so vehemently opposed by the unions. Some think this is too little too late. He passed the debt hot potato to the minister of finance’s budget speech on 20 February 2018.

Energy Minister Jeff Radebe said Eskom must prepare for increased competition, presumably in generation. The transmission network needs to be opened to allow this. The courts have stopped Eskom from switching off defaulting municipalities. Esokm’s crisis gets worse every day. Government will have to sort out municipal non-payment or allow towns and cities to go dark or let Eskom collapse.

Until the President’s statement, government seemed paralysed. Will words turn into the effective action that’s needed to save South Africa from its power utility?The Conversation

Rod Crompton, Adjunct professor African Energy Leadership Centre Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why South Africa’s latest plan for state-owned power giant could work
11 February 2019, 12:12 PM
Lauren Hermanus, University of Cape Town and Catrina Godinho, University of Cape Town

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has unveiled a new plan for the country’s beleaguered state owned power utility, Eskom. During his State of the Nation Address on 7 February, Ramaphosa announced that Eskom would be unbundled into “three separate entities – generation, transmission and distribution”. These would all be established “under Eskom Holdings”.

This announcement has been a long time coming. It was first proposed and formalised 20 years ago in the country’s 1998 White Paper on Energy Policy. Among other things, the policy sought to break Eskom into distinct smaller entities.

Ramaphosa’s speech was the seventh State of the Nation Address in which a president committed to structural reforms in the electricity sector. Former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma made similar promises. Given that they never followed through, Ramaphosa’s announcement may sound all too familiar – and hollow – to some.

But we believe the unbundling will have far reaching consequences for South Africa’s energy sector. Ramaphosa offered a comprehensive outline of the plan. His commitment also comes at a time when Eskom is mired in financial, operational and governance crises. This time, it seems, an electricity reform may really be on the horizon.

Unbundling explained

Unbundling is a type of structural reform. In the electricity sector, vertical unbundling refers to the separation of a utility’s generation, transmission, distribution and (sometimes) retail functions. Horizontal unbundling refers to the creation or entry of multiple players into each of these functions. The players may compete against each other to deliver the same service.

South Africa is certainly not the first country to undergo this type of reform. It can learn from examples of similar processes in countries like Kenya and Uganda.

There are a number of benefits associated with unbundling. These include:

  • more efficiency, resilience and sustainability through a tighter focus and clearer incentives within each functional area;

  • More competition and diversification of players;

  • Clarity in costs and functions of unbundled entities, which increases accountability for the purposes of governance and oversight; and,

  • Low-cost procurement driven by effective planning, competition and transparency.

Eskom currently operates as a vertically integrated monopoly. This means it performs the generation, transmission, distribution and retail functions. Its current structure and governance systems were cemented by apartheid’s internationally isolated security state. This outdated structure, which is characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability, has continued to shape the utility in the years since democracy.

There is a narrow window for municipalities and the private sector to play a role in distribution and retail, and generation, respectively.

But Eskom still generates approximately 95% of the country’s electricity. It exercises tremendous power in controlling access to the national grid. It has used its dominance to oppose national energy policy by, for example, refusing to sign power purchase agreements with independent power producers.

South Africa is lagging behind

This kind of monopolistic structure is unusual by international standards, in both developed and developing countries. And it often comes with operational inefficiencies, bloated costs and poor governance.

Eskom has experienced all of these maladies. This has been demonstrated by its conduct with independent power producers, its role in the controversial nuclear deal, which has now been put on ice, and endemic corruption exposed by the portfolio committee on public enterprises’ inquiry into allegations of state capture at the utility.

These challenges are not unique to South Africa. But the country is behind the curve when it comes to addressing the structural factors and ensuring that its energy sector is well positioned to benefit from technological developments and shifting investment trends.

What Ramaphosa’s announcement means

President Ramaphosa has committed to the full vertical unbundling of Eskom. Generation, transmission and distribution companies will have their own boards and executive structures. This process will take time to implement, probably in the region of five years.

It will require legislative and possibly policy reform. Due to the urgent need for transformation in the sector, the president said immediate attention should be given to the establishment of an independent, state owned transmission grid company.

A good starting point for the unbundling process would be the establishment of an Eskom subsidiary with its own board. This subsidiary would oversee the migration of relevant assets and personnel. The intention would be to combine the transmission, system operation, power planning, procurement and buying functions. This separation is intended to leave the grid company free to contract independent power producers and Eskom generation without the conflict of interest that currently exists. As it stands, Eskom transmission is incentivised to give its own generation plants preference, blocking new technology and new entrants to bolster its own operations.

It’s not only the president’s explicit commitment to a comprehensive reform plan that makes this announcement different from those that came before. The sector is in a fundamentally different situation compared to the early 2000s and early 2010s.

Eskom is in the midst of extreme financial, operational and governance crises which it will not be able to solve alone, especially within the context of the complex global energy transition.

But, to ensure this plan doesn’t go the way of its predecessors, Ramaphosa must ensure meaningful consultation and dialogue with all key stakeholders, as well as credible and sustainable plans to address the needs of all those who may be affected. Without this, the president’s announcement will meet the same fate as previous South African energy policy reform pronouncements. Reform is a complex social and technical process. It is not without risk and costs. This time, however, failure of implementation is not something the country can afford.The Conversation

Lauren Hermanus, Research associate, University of Cape Town and Catrina Godinho, Research associate, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Watch: Mokgoro Enquiry
11 February 2019, 9:37 AM

The Deputy National Director of Public Prosecutions, Willie Hofmeyr will again take the witness stand at the Mokgoro Enquiry in Centurion for cross examination.

The Enquiry adjourned last week to allow Hofmeyr time to consult with his legal counsel in relation to allegations he made in his affidavit.

Watch below:

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