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Arab spacecraft enters orbit around Mars in historic flight

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Arab spacecraft enters orbit around Mars in historic flight

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Mars on Tuesday in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.

Ground controllers at the UAE’s space center in Dubai rose to their feet and broke into applause when word came that the craft, called Amal, Arabic for Hope, had reached the end of its seven-month, 300-million-mile journey and had begun circling the red planet, where it will gather detailed data on Mars’ atmosphere.

The orbiter fired its main engines for 27 minutes in an intricate, high-stakes maneuver that slowed the craft enough for it to be captured by Mars’ gravity. It took a nail-biting 11 minutes for the signal confirming success to reach Earth.

Tensions were high: Over the years, Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of missions from various countries.

A visibly relieved Omran Sharaf, the mission’s director, declared, “To the people of the UAE and Arab and Islamic nations, we announce the success of the UAE reaching Mars.”

Two more unmanned spacecraft from the U.S. and China are following close behind, set to arrive at Mars over the next several days. All three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.

Amal’s arrival puts the UAE in a league of just five space agencies in history that have pulled off a functioning Mars mission. As the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, the flight is a point of intense pride for the oil-rich nation as it seeks a future in space.

An ebullient Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, was on hand at mission control and said: “Congratulations to the leadership and people of the UAE. … Your joy is indescribable.”

About 60% of all Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere.

A combination orbiter and lander from China is scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land in May to look for signs of ancient life.

A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing Feb. 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harbored microscopic life.

If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times, the first almost 45 years ago. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.

For months, Amal’s journey had been tracked by the UAE’s state-run media with rapturous enthusiasm. Landmarks across the UAE, including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, have glowed red to mark the spacecraft’s anticipated arrival. Billboards depicting Amal tower over Dubai’s highways. This year is the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, casting even more attention on Amal.

If all goes as planned, Amal over the next two months will settle into an exceptionally high, elliptical orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers), from which it will survey the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere around the entire planet, at all times of day and in all seasons.

It joins six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.

Amal had to perform a series of turns and engine firings to maneuver into orbit, reducing its speed to 11,200 mph (18,000 kph) from over 75,000 mph (121,000 kph).

The control room full of Emirati engineers held their breath as Amal disappeared behind Mars’ dark side. Then it re-emerged from the planet’s shadow, and contact was restored on schedule. Screens at the space center revealed that Amal had managed to do what had eluded many missions over the decades.

“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the UAE’s space agency.

The success delivers a tremendous boost to the UAE’s space ambitions. The country’s first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians. That’s 58 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched astronauts.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, tweeted congratulations, saying: “Your bold endeavor to explore the Red Planet will inspire many others to reach for the stars. We hope to join you at Mars soon” with Perseverance.

In developing Amal, the UAE chose to collaborate with more experienced partners instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. Its engineers and scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University.

The spacecraft was assembled at Boulder, Colorado, before being sent to Japan for launch last July.

The car-size Amal cost $200 million to build and launch; that excludes operating costs at Mars. The Chinese and U.S. expeditions are considerably more complicated — and expensive — because of their rovers. NASA’s Perseverance mission totals $3 billion.

The UAE, a federation of seven skeikhdoms, is looking for Amal to ignite the imaginations of the country’s scientists and its youth, and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.

“Today you have households of every single age group passionate about space, understanding a lot of science,” said al-Amiri, the chair of the space agency. “This has opened a broad range of possibilities for everyone in the UAE and also, I truly hope, within the Arab world.”

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Man spent entire pandemic alone in five-star NYC hotel

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Man spent entire pandemic alone in five-star NYC hotel

Isolated in the lap of luxury, he watched the skyline go dark.

When New York City went into its COVID-19-induced lockdown in March 2020, the fire department announced properties were required to keep one person on-site in case of trouble. For Midtown’s five-star Chatwal hotel, that person became Robert Mallia, Crain’s reported.

Mallia was not the 76-room-hotel owner’s first choice, but when multiple other people passed on the gig out of fear or to prioritize their family, Mallia — a 36-year-old childless bachelor — volunteered.

“Having the chance to live in a building that you worked on is cool,” said Mallia, an architectural designer for the Dream Hotel Group, which owns a portfolio of Manhattan hotels including the Chatwal. “My apartment is quite modest compared to a five-star luxury hotel.”

In the 14 months he’s been living in Room 307, the space has at least become familiar.

“When weeks became months, I got used to my room, like in ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ ” he said. “I’m content in my cell now.”

Initially, though, it was quite the adjustment from his Long Island City apartment, which he still makes frequent visits to.

“At first, it was strange,” he said. “It was perfectly silent.”

With all 59 members of the hotel’s staff gone, Mallia has been responsible for cleaning up after himself. For food, he has mostly relied on takeout. 

“It’s nothing too glamorous, I’m afraid,” he said.

His daily schedule involves waking up at 5:30 a.m. and doing a variety of housekeeping: sorting mail, looking for leaks and other maintenance problems. Once a week, he flushes every toilet in the building; twice a month, he turns on all the showers and sinks for 10 minutes.

His only companions are a rotation of security guards and the building’s chief engineer, who makes weekly visits to confirm fire code compliance.

The owner’s other hotels have begun reopening this month, and the Chatwal will likely follow suit soon — good news for Mallia.

“I miss being at home,” he said. 

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Zoo euthanizes animals as state becomes too warm

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Zoo euthanizes animals as state becomes too warm

The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley has announced that their two remaining musk oxen were preemptively laid to rest over fears that the warming state would make their final days more difficult.

Zoo officials announced the decision on their website on May 13, writing that the pair of “elderly musk oxen had been showing progressive age-related health issues.”

“Their health further declined this spring as the weather warmed,” they said in a tweet on May 14. Followers called the news “incredibly sad” and “a heartbreaker.”

In the zoo’s farewell message, they explained that rising temperatures during the past decade have affected the health of the herd, which started growing in 1978 when the zoo acquired male and female oxen from breeders in Calgary and Winnipeg, Canada. The families went on to breed 65 calves. But by 2010, zoo workers “started noticing changes,” which they attributed to “increased summer heat and humidity.”

Since 2000, Minnesota has racked up many of its warmest days on record — with the average temperature having risen by 2 degrees since 100 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It seems even Minnesota has now become too far south for this species to thrive,” the zoo wrote.

Zookeeper Cindy Bjork-Groebner said in a statement on the musk oxen, “We saw firsthand just how much the seasons and temperature and humidity played a role in how they thrived or not.”

Though musk ox is native to the arctic tundra, the Minnesota Zoo had long been home to the herd thanks to the state’s historically chilly climate during much of the year. However, the rising average summer temperatures have proven detrimental to the cold-weather creatures.

“You could tell they were thriving when the temperatures were colder, and then the minute the heat and humidity hit, that’s when I really started watching and could notice changes,” Bjork-Groebner said.

The decision to euthanize the two last oxen was the result of “a long conversation between veterinarians, curators and zoo leadership,” added Dr. Taylor Yaw, manager of the zoo’s animal health department. “We have a responsibility to these animals. When it comes to a point that we can’t manage clinical health issues, this is the most humane choice we can make.”

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At Miss Universe pageant, Myanmar’s contestant pleads “our people are dying”

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Ma Thuzar Wint Lwin, Miss Universe Myanmar, holds up the "Pray for Myanmar" sign during Miss Universe pageant's national costume show, in Hollywood, Florida May 13, 2021

Myanmar’s Miss Universe contestant, Thuzar Wint Lwin, used the pageant on Sunday to urge the world to speak out against the military junta, whose security forces have killed hundreds of opponents since it seized power in a Feb. 1 coup.

“Our people are dying and being shot by the military every day,” she said in a video message for the competition, where she was appearing in the finals at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida.

“I would like to urge everyone to speak about Myanmar. As Miss Universe Myanmar since the coup, I have been speaking out as much as I can,” she said.

Myanmar’s junta spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment.

Thuzar Wint Lwin is among dozens of Myanmar celebrities, actors, social media influencers and sports people who have voiced opposition to the coup, in which elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown and detained.

At least 790 people have been killed by security forces since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group. It says over 5,000 people have been arrested, with some 4,000 still detained – including several celebrities.

Thuzar Wint Lwin did not make it to the last round of the Miss Universe competition, but she won the award for Best National Costume, which was based on the ethnic costume of her Chin people from northwestern Myanmar, where fighting has raged in recent days between the army and anti-junta militia fighters.

As she paraded with her national costume, she held up a placard that said “Pray for Myanmar”.

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