China Prepares to Send New 3-Person Crew to Space Station

Final preparations were being made Monday to send a new three-person crew to China’s space station as it nears completion amid intensifying competition with the United States.

The China Manned Space Agency said the Shenzhou-15 mission will take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert at 11:08 p.m. Tuesday night.

The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last “in the construction phase of China’s space station,” agency official Ji Qiming told reporters Monday.

Fei, 57, is a veteran of the 2005 four-day Shenzhou-6 mission which was the second in which China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang are flying in space for the first time.

The station’s third and final module docked with the station earlier this month, one of the last steps in a more than decade-long effort to maintain a constant crewed presence in orbit.

The astronauts will overlap briefly onboard the station, named Tiangong, with the previous crew, who arrived in early June for a six-month stay.

Tiangong has room to accommodate six astronauts at a time. Previous missions to the space station have taken about 13 hours from liftoff to docking.

Next year, China plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit in sequence with the station and can dock occasionally with it for maintenance.

No other future additions to the space station have been publicly announced.

The permanent Chinese station will weigh about 66 tons – a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day find itself the only space station still running if the International Space Station adheres to its 30-year operating plan.

China’s crewed space program is officially three decades old this year, but it truly got underway in 2003, when China became only the third country after the U.S. and Russia to put a human into space using its own resources.

The program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded methodically and almost entirely without outside support. The U.S. excluded China from the International Space Station because of its program’s military ties.

China has also chalked up successes with uncrewed missions, and its lunar exploration program generated media buzz last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back pictures of what was described by some as a “mystery hut” but was most likely only a rock. The rover is the first to be placed on the little-explored far side of the moon.

China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s in December 2000 and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars. Officials are also considering a crewed mission to the moon.

No timeline has been offered for a crewed lunar mission, even as NASA presses ahead with its Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025.

China’s space program has also drawn controversy. Beijing brushed off complaints that it has allowed rocket stages to fall to Earth uncontrolled after NASA accused it of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” when parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

China’s increasing space capabilities also feature in the latest Pentagon defense strategy.

“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and informational warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare,” the strategy said.

The U.S. and China are at odds on a range of issues, especially self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing threatens to annex with force. China responded to a September visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island, holding wargames in surrounding waters and staging a simulated blockade, something that could trigger an American military response.

Bird Flu in Nebraska Prompts Slaughter of Additional 1.8M Chickens

Just like on other farms where bird flu has been found this year, all the chickens on the Nebraska farm will be killed to limit the spread of the disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says more than 52.3 million birds in 46 states — mostly chickens and turkeys on commercial farms — have been slaughtered as part of this year’s outbreak.

Nebraska is second only to Iowa’s 15.5 million birds killed with 6.8 million birds now affected at 13 farms.

In most past bird flu outbreaks the virus largely died off during the summer, but this year’s version found a way to linger and started to make a resurgence this fall with more than 6 million birds killed in September.

The virus is primarily spread by wild birds as they migrate across the country. Wild birds can often carry the disease without showing symptoms. The virus spreads through droppings or the nasal discharge of an infected bird, which can contaminate dust and soil.

Commercial farms have taken steps to prevent the virus from infecting their flocks, including requiring workers to change clothes before entering barns and sanitizing trucks as they enter the farm, but the disease can be difficult to control. Zoos have also taken precautions and closed some exhibits to protect their birds.

Officials say there is little risk to human health from the virus because human cases are extremely rare, and the infected birds aren’t allowed to enter the nation’s food supply. Plus, any viruses will be killed by properly cooking poultry to 74 degrees Celsius (165 degrees Fahrenheit).

But the bird flu outbreak has contributed to the rising prices of chicken and turkey along with the soaring cost of feed and fuel.

Worried About Ebola, Uganda Extends Outbreak Epicenter’s Quarantine

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has extended a quarantine placed on two districts that are the epicenter of the country’s Ebola outbreak by 21 days, adding that his government’s response to the disease was succeeding.

Movement into and out of the Mubende and Kassanda districts in central Uganda will be restricted up to Dec. 17, the presidency said late Saturday. It was originally imposed for 21 days on Oct. 15, then extended for the same period Nov. 5.

The extension is “to further sustain the gains in control of Ebola that we have made, and to protect the rest of the country from continued exposure,” according to Museveni.

The government’s anti-Ebola efforts were succeeding with two districts now going for roughly two weeks without new cases, the president said.

“It may be too early to celebrate any successes, but overall, I have been briefed that the picture is good,” he said in a statement.

The East African nation has so far recorded 141 infections. Fifty-five people have died since the outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic fever was declared on Sept. 20th.

Although the outbreak was gradually being brought under control, the “situation is still fragile,” Museveni said, adding that the country’s weak health system and circulation of misinformation about the disease were still a challenge.

The Ebola virus circulating in Uganda is the Sudan strain, for which there is no proven vaccine, unlike the more common Zaire strain, which spread during recent outbreaks in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Electric Vehicles, a Century Old, Gain Speed in Marketplace

The International Energy Agency says 13% of cars sold worldwide this year will be electric. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that consumer demand for electric vehicles is increasing as the industry overcomes technical hurdles.

COVID Protests Hit Shanghai as Anger Spreads Across China

Protests simmered in Shanghai early Sunday, as residents in several Chinese cities, many of them angered by a deadly fire in the country’s far west, pushed back against heavy COVID-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic.

A fire Thursday that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked widespread public anger as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, which city officials denied.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, residents gathered on Saturday night at the city’s Wulumuqi Road — which borrows its name from Urumqi — for a vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

“Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!” the crowds in Shanghai shouted, according to a video circulated on social media.

At one point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, free Urumqi!” according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest of the Chinese leadership.

A large group of police looked on and sometimes tried to break up the crowd.

China is battling a surge in infections that has prompted lockdowns and other restrictions in cities across the country as Beijing adheres to a zero-COVID policy even as much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Videos from Shanghai widely shared on Chinese social media showed crowds facing dozens of police and calling out chants including: “Serve the people,” “We don’t want health codes” and “We want freedom.”

Some social media users posted screenshots of street signs for Wulumuqi Road, both to evade censors and show support for protesters in Shanghai. Others shared comments or posts calling for all of “you brave young people” to be careful. Many included advice on what to do if police came or started arresting people during a protest or vigil.

Anger nationwide

Shanghai’s 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, an ordeal that provoked anger and protest.

Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, but that effort has been challenged by a surge in infections as China faces its first winter with the highly transmissible omicron variant.

While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections reported by health authorities on Sunday for the previous day.

On Friday night, crowds took to the streets of Urumqi, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air after the deadly fire, according to videos circulated on Chinese social media.

Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.

In Beijing, 2,700 kilometers away, some residents under lockdown staged small protests or confronted local officials on Saturday over movement restrictions, with some successfully pressuring them into lifting the curbs ahead of schedule.

A video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the capital marching around an open-air carpark Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown!”

The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The next few weeks could be the worst in China since the early weeks of the pandemic both for the economy and the health care system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in note last week, as efforts to contain the outbreak will require additional localized lockdowns in many cities.

China Reports Third Consecutive Daily Record for New COVID Cases

China reported 35,183 new COVID-19 infections on Friday, of which 3,474 were symptomatic and 31,709 were asymptomatic, the National Health Commission said on Saturday, setting a new high for the third consecutive day.

That compared with 32,943 new cases a day earlier — 3,103 symptomatic and 29,840 asymptomatic infections, which China counts separately.

Excluding imported cases, China reported 34,909 new local cases on Friday, of which 3,405 were symptomatic and 31,504 were asymptomatic, up from 32,695 a day earlier.

There were no deaths, keeping fatalities at 5,232. As of Friday, mainland China had confirmed 304,093 cases with symptoms.

Mega-cities continue to struggle to contain outbreaks, with Chongqing and Guangzhou recording the bulk of new cases.

Chongqing, a southwestern city of 32 million people, reported 7,721 new local cases for Friday, a jump of almost 20% from the previous day.

Guangzhou, a prosperous city of nearly 19 million people in southern China, reported 7,419 new local cases for Friday, down slightly from 7,524 cases a day earlier.

New local cases for Friday in the capital Beijing jumped 58% to 2,595, according to figures released by local health authorities Saturday.

There are COVID outbreaks in almost all Chinese provinces, with Hebei, Sichuan, Shanxi and Qinghai provinces each registering more than a thousand new cases on Friday.

COVID Protests in China’s Urumqi Region

Protesters, angry about long COVID-19 lockdowns, have taken to the streets in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang region.

The protests followed a high-rise apartment building fire in Urumqi on Thursday that killed 10 people and concerns that the lockdown measures may have prevented firefighters from entering the building quickly and may have hampered the exit of some residents.

The demonstrations also follow online discussions, now removed, on Chinese social media questioning why there are maskless spectators at the World Cup games, while China continues to subject its citizens to long lockdowns.

“More than 120 countries in the rest of the world have lifted their COVID restrictive measures quite some time ago,” began one of the questions posed by a writer who said he lives in north central Shannxi province, home to China’s ancient capital city Xi’an.

“Why should they lead freer lives than Chinese citizens? I did not see anyone sporting face masks at the Qatar World Cup opening ceremony and did not hear of any attendee showing proof of negative COVID tests; does this mean they live on a different planet from us?”

Urumqi has been under lockdown since August. However, it is reporting about 100 new COVID cases each day.

Urumqi is also home to many Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that human rights groups and western governments say suffered many human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government. China rejects the charges as interference in its internal affairs.

NASA’s Orion Capsule Enters Far-Flung Orbit Around Moon

NASA’s Orion capsule entered an orbit stretching tens of thousands of miles around the moon Friday, as it neared the halfway mark of its test flight.

The capsule and its three test dummies entered lunar orbit more than a week after launching on the $4 billion demo that’s meant to pave the way for astronauts. It will remain in this broad but stable orbit for nearly a week, completing just half a lap before heading home.

As of Friday’s engine firing, the capsule was 380,000 kilometers from Earth. It’s expected to reach a maximum distance of almost 432,000 kilometers in a few days. That will set a new distance record for a capsule designed to carry people one day.

“It is a statistic, but it’s symbolic for what it represents,” Jim Geffre, an Orion manager, said in a NASA interview earlier in the week. “It’s about challenging ourselves to go farther, stay longer and push beyond the limits of what we’ve previously explored.”

NASA considers this a dress rehearsal for the next moon flyby in 2024, with astronauts. A lunar landing by astronauts could follow as soon as 2025. Astronauts last visited the moon 50 years ago during Apollo 17.

Earlier in the week, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with the capsule for nearly an hour. At the time, controllers were adjusting the communication link between Orion and the Deep Space Network. Officials said the spacecraft remained healthy.

US Bans Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies HWT.UL and ZTE 000063.SZ because they pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Friday it had adopted the final rules, which also bar the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology Co 002236.SZ, video surveillance firm Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd 002415.SZ and telecoms firm Hytera Communications Corp Ltd 002583.SZ.

The move represents Washington’s latest crackdown on the Chinese tech giants amid fears that Beijing could use Chinese tech companies to spy on Americans.

“These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Huawei declined to comment. ZTE, Dahua, Hikvision and Hytera did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rosenworcel circulated the proposed measure — which effectively bars the firms from selling new equipment in the United States — to the other three commissioners for final approval last month.

The FCC said in June 2021 it was considering banning all equipment authorizations for all companies on the covered list.

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called “covered list” as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

All four commissioners at the agency, including two Republicans and two Democrats, supported Friday’s move.

London to Expand Vehicle Pollution Zone to Cover 9 Million People

Older and more heavily polluting vehicles will have to pay to enter the entire metropolitan area of London starting next August, the British capital’s mayor said Friday.

Sadiq Khan said the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) would be expanded beyond its current confines starting August 29 to encompass the entire 9 million people of greater London.

Announcing a parallel expansion of bus services in outer London, he argued that air pollution from older and heavier vehicles was making Londoners “sick from cradle to the grave.”

The ULEZ has proved transformational, the mayor said, and its extension would mean “5 million more people will be able to breathe cleaner air and live healthier lives.”

But the plan has prompted a fierce backlash from political opponents and some residents in the capital, who point to a survey indicating that most Londoners opposed extending the zone.

The two-month outreach exercise was held earlier this year by Transport for London, which runs the capital’s various transport systems. The survey heard from 57,913 people, including nearly 12,000 campaigners on either side of the issue.

Although it found 55% of respondents had “some concern” about their local air quality, the survey also recorded 59% as opposed to the ULEZ being expanded.

That rose to 70% in the outer London areas set to be part of the enlargement.

“Sadiq Khan has broken his promise to listen to Londoners,” the Conservative grouping in London’s lawmaking assembly said on Twitter.

“He must U-TURN on the ULEZ expansion.”

The zone has been expanded once since it was introduced in April 2019 and currently covers a large area within London’s North and South Circular inner ring-roads and the city center.

Unless their vehicles are exempt, drivers entering the zone must pay a daily charge of $15.

Gasoline cars first registered after 2005, and diesel cars after September 2015, typically meet the ULEZ standards for nitrous oxide emissions and are exempt.

Air pollution caused around 1,000 annual hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions in London between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2019 report.

A coroner ruled in 2020 that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of a 9-year-old London girl in 2013, the first time in Britain that air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death.

Air pollution is “affecting children before they’re even born, and giving them lifelong health issues,” the campaign group Mums for Lungs tweeted.

“Good news for the health of all Londoners,” it said in response to the ULEZ announcement.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, a U.N. climate envoy and former mayor of New York, said Khan was “helping to clean London’s air and set an example for cities around the world.”

But opponents of the ULEZ argue it amounts to a tax on poorer drivers least able to afford to replace their polluting vehicles and has hurt small businesses.

The announcement will be “a hammer-blow for desperate drivers and businesses already struggling with crippling fuel costs” during a cost-of-living crisis, said the head of roads policy for motoring body the RAC, Nicholas Lyes.

All cars and vans entering central London during the daytime also pay a “congestion charge” of 15 pounds, a measure first introduced in 2003.

Similar programs have been set up in several other British towns and cities to reduce emission levels and improve air quality.