Shane Harris makes some explosive allegations in a new article for the National Journal. Experts, citing U.S. officials, believe that China's People's Liberation Army may have shut down power grids in Florida and the northeastern United States, Harris reports:
Tim Bennett, the former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, a leading trade group, said that U.S. intelligence officials have told him that the PLA in 2003 gained access to a network that controlled electric power systems serving the northeastern United States. The intelligence officials said that forensic analysis had confirmed the source, Bennett said. “They said that, with confidence, it had been traced back to the PLA.” These officials believe that the intrusion may have precipitated the largest blackout in North American history, which occurred in August of that year. A 9,300-square-mile area, touching Michigan, Ohio, New York, and parts of Canada, lost power; an estimated 50 million people were affected.
If the allegations are true, was this act intentional? Perhaps not, another source tells Harris:
A second information-security expert independently corroborated Bennett’s account of the Florida blackout. According to this individual, who cited sources with direct knowledge of the investigation, a Chinese PLA hacker attempting to map Florida Power & Light’s computer infrastructure apparently made a mistake. “The hacker was probably supposed to be mapping the system for his bosses and just got carried away and had a ‘what happens if I pull on this’ moment.” The hacker triggered a cascade effect, shutting down large portions of the Florida power grid, the security expert said. “I suspect, as the system went down, the PLA hacker said something like, ‘Oops, my bad,’ in Chinese.”
I wonder if Richard Clarke still believes that the real threat from Chinese hackers is industrial espionage.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has always cultivated a populist image, quite unlike most of the Communist Party's normally aloof leaders. And "Grandpa Wen's" following only grew after his quick and empathetic response to the Sichuan earthquake. Now, you too, can be one of Grandpa's friends, on Facebook at least.
One of Wen's supporters has set up a Facebook profile for him and, as of this writing, he's approaching 14,000 supporters. There's not much personal info on the page, though we do learn that the prime minister enjoys Chinese literature and baseball. The New York Times's Edward Wong writes that it is "unclear who the supporter is that set up the page... and whether he or she has ties to the government." I would be very suprised if the CCP were behind this since the profile's message board is basically a magnet for comments like "Tenzin Gyatso > Wen Jia-bao."
But if you want to believe you're Facebook-stalking the leader of 1.3 billion people, go right ahead. I'm sticking with Clay Davis.
In collaboration with NASA researchers at Arizona State University, Google Maps has created an interactive map of our neighboring planet, complete with "elevation," "visible," and "infrared" view options, as well as markers indicating space craft landings, dunes, craters, and ridges.
While Google Mars is a pretty cool concept, and its mapping has certainly come a long way from those of the 19th century astronomer Percival Lowell, it appears Mars as a planet doesn't offer quite the diversity of satellite images provided by Earth's mountains, oceans, deserts, and plains.
Google actually admits that without color alteration, "Mars pretty much looks like butterscotch." And according to the principal investigator for the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, images sent back from the spacecraft, which landed on Mars's toffee-like surface this weekend, show a "barren landscape that is kind of lumpy."
Apparently the lumpiness, which orbiting space crafts detected back in 2002, is a sign of underground water ice. But now NASA's Phoenix lander is back to explore the next big question: "But does the ice melt?"
If the answer is yes, then at least we're not alone.
Looks like Sen. Dick Durbin may be taking up the flag of the late Rep. Tom Lantos when it comes to bashing the operations of tech companies in China. Ars Technica's Nate Anderson reports on today's hearing before Durbin's Judiciary subcommittee:
Yahoo, Google, and Cisco all trekked over to the Senate today to sit for an hour under the grandfatherly, but strangely stern eye of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). The subject was 'Internet freedom,' but this turned out to be code for 'censorship in China....' Durbin [was not] convinced, though, that multinational corporations were truly doing as much as they legally could to avoid censoring information.... After Google's Nicole Wong claimed that engagement with China was better than isolation, Durbin said that the answer reminded him of corporate arguments regarding apartheid in South Africa.
Durbin told tech executives to expect some legislation in the Senate similar to the Global Online Freedom Act, which would hold U.S. companies liable for helping foreign governments censor the Net. A recently unearthed PowerPoint presentation in which Cisco Systems executives appeared to be keen to help Chinese officials in censoring the Web (one phrase referred to "combating Falun Gong evil cult and other hostile elements") could give the bill legs.
State gifts have a long history of goofiness, (300 lbs of lamb?) but I have to hand it to Bill Gates. His recent gift of a traditional mother of pearl-inlaid X-Box 360 to South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is both beautiful and functional. Plus, it helps boost Microsoft's numbers against Sony for dominance of the South Korean gaming market.
The decoration is the handiwork of Kim Young-jun [pictured above], the head of a manufacturing company called Gookbo. "I got a call from Microsoft Korea last month," Kim said. "They told me something about an Xbox, but I had no idea what that was. I thought they were talking about some kind of black box."
Brits hoping to buy an Apple iPhone this week (or next week, or the week after that) are out of luck. O2, Apple's exclusive carrier in the UK, has run out of iPhones. There's reportedly not a new phone to be had in the British Isles right now, as everyone eagerly awaits the 3G version, rumored to be launched this summer. (No doubt there are a few barely second-hand iPhones available out there for the right price.)
And Americans hoping to blow their $600 tax rebate checks on new iPhones might be in for a shock as well. Apple sales reps told PC World last weekend that both the UK and U.S. online stores are sold out. (Further evidence here.) Some iPhones should still be available in Apple stores, but all the disappearing acts have talk of the 3G phone going into hyperdrive.
In the current issue of FP, I have a short piece on the iPhone grey market, the million+ iPhones that have been unlocked for use all around the world. There's evidence that Apple not only didn't anticipate the extent of the underground market, but that as soon as it became apparent, they've used it to their advantage to test market in countries where the phone hasn't yet launched.
Their exclusivity agreements - with AT&T in the U.S., O2 in Britain - were always something of a puzzle, and it looks as though Apple is abandoning them as it becomes apparent that people are determined to get around them. A string of announcements in recent weeks suggests that iPhones will officially be available on a number of carriers in Australia, India, and Italy, among others. Can the U.S. be too far behind?
The full extent extent of the damage caused by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit China's Sichuan Province on Monday afternoon is just starting to become clear. It is estimated that about 9,000 people were killed. The quake was felt in Beijing and Shanghai, and in places as far reaching as Taipei, Hanoi and Bangkok.
In order to reassure people and to squelch false rumors, the Chinese government is using SMS text messaging (translated) to mobile phones as well as internet postings to inform people that the areas where they live are not in the seismic zone. Over a million such messages were sent in nearby Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guizhou Province.
The government plans to use text messaging not only for emergencies, but for various situations relating to the public interest. The plan is part of the government's new openness in information regulations which it says will promote "openness as principle, being closed off as the exception" in an effort to provide timely and accurate information to the public.
The hand of the government doesn't seem so far away when it's reaching you through a device clutched in yours.
Michael Wilkerson, writing on World Politics Review's blog, shares a rare bit of good global food news out of Chile. Scientists there have genetically engineered a new strain of rice that can be cooked with one fourth the amount of water. The discovery won't reduce the skyrocketing cost of rice but will dramatically reduce the water and fuel needed to cook it. With destabilizing food riots occurring more and more frequently, anything to give developing world consumers a break is welcome news.
The latest issue of IEEE Spectrum has a fascinating article about the possibility that
cylons Chinese or Russian bad guys might build a "backdoor" or a "kill switch" on chips exported to the United States:
Three years ago, the prestigious Defense Science Board, which advises the DOD on science and technology developments, warned in a report that the continuing shift to overseas chip fabrication would expose the Pentagon's most mission-critical integrated circuits to sabotage. The board was especially alarmed that no existing tests could detect such compromised chips, which led to the formation of the DARPA Trust in IC program.
Where might such an attack originate? U.S. officials invariably mention China and Russia. Kenneth Flamm, a technology expert at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration who is now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wouldn't get that specific but did offer some clues. Each year, secure government computer networks weather thousands of attacks over the Internet. "Some of that probing has come from places where a lot of our electronics are being manufactured," Flamm says. "And if you're a responsible defense person, you would be stupid not to look at some of the stuff they're assembling, to see how else they might try to enter the network."
John Randall, a semiconductor expert at Zyvex Corp., in Richardson, Texas, elaborates that any malefactor who can penetrate government security can find out what chips are being ordered by the Defense Department and then target them for sabotage. "If they can access the chip designs and add the modifications," Randall says, "then the chips could be manufactured correctly anywhere and still contain the unwanted circuitry."
How real is this threat? DARPA thinks the U.S. military could be vulnerable:
Dean Collins, deputy director of DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office and program manager for the Trust in IC initiative... notes that many defense contractors rely heavily on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs)—a kind of generic chip that can be customized through software... "If you make a mistake on an FPGA, hey, you just reprogram it," says Collins. "That's the good news. The bad news is that if you put the FPGA in a military system, someone else can reprogram it."
Almost all FPGAs are now made at foundries outside the United States, about 80 percent of them in Taiwan. Defense contractors have no good way of guaranteeing that these economical chips haven't been tampered with. Building a kill switch into an FPGA could mean embedding as few as 1000 transistors within its many hundreds of millions. "You could do a lot of very interesting things with those extra transistors," Collins says.
Fortune has an interesting interview with Google cofounder Larry Page. Here he is pontificating about alternative energy, one of his company's eclectic new research areas:
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
You can be a bit of a detective and ask, What are the industries where things haven't changed much in 50 years? We've been looking a little at geothermal power. And you start thinking about it, and you say, Well, a couple of miles under this spot or almost any other place in the world, it's pretty darn hot. How hard should it be to dig a really deep hole? We've been drilling for a long time, mostly for oil - and oil's expensive. If you want to move heat around, you need bigger holes. The technology just hasn't been developed for extracting heat. I imagine there's pretty good odds that's possible.
Solar thermal's another area we've been working on; the numbers there are just astounding. In Southern California or Nevada, on a day with an average amount of sun, you can generate 800 megawatts on one square mile. And 800 megawatts is actually a lot. A nuclear plant is about 2,000 megawatts.
The amount of land that's required to power the entire U.S. with electricity is something like 100 miles by 100 miles. So you say, "What do I need to do to generate that power?" You could buy solar cells. The problem is, at today's solar prices you'd need trillions of dollars to generate all the electricity in the U.S. Then you say, "Well, how much do mirrors cost?" And it turns out you can buy pieces of glass and a mirror and you can cover those areas for not that much money. Somehow the world is not doing a good job of making this stuff available. As a society, on the larger questions we have, we're not making reasonable progress.
And yet, Page is optimistic that this progress can accelerate:
Look at the things we worry about - poverty, global warming, people dying in accidents. And look at the things that drive people's basic level of happiness - safety and opportunity for their kids, plus basic things like health and shelter. I think our ability to achieve these things on a large scale for many people in the world is improving.
Steve Jobs's shop recently announced the $278 million purchase of a small computer-chip maker named P.A. Semi—a takeover that most analysts assumed was designed to shore up efficient chip technology for future versions of the iPhone.
But it turns out some of P.A. Semi's best customers are defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and they're not at all comfortable with the company's new latte-drinking, yoga-practicing, peacenik boss. Rumors are flying that Apple will shut down production of a key processor used in "more than 10" different defense systems.
EE Times reports:
Apple Inc. may have to face the ire of the U.S. Department of Defense following its planned acquisition of P.A. Semi Inc. The startup's PWRficient processor is designed into DoD programs in every major branch of the armed services, said one P.A. Semi customer who expects Apple will end production of the parts.
"We've had customers saying they are going to the DoD on this one," said a source in one of the several companies making embedded computer boards with the processor.
Lends new meaning to the term "iPod Killer," doesn't it?
The details of the 2006 “Liquid bomb” plot have finally been spilled. The Guardian reports that yesterday the prosecution in the trial of eight men charged with hatching the plot, revealed a diary belonging to one of the alledeged conspirators. Inside police found specific details of the explosive cocktail.
The plan was to create an explosive mixture of hydrogen peroxide, Tang and some other easily-obtainable chemicals. The mixture was to be detonated with the power supply from a disposable camera. The aim was probably to produce an explosive called HMTD, which has been used in previous suicide attacks and was the most likely explosive used in the 7/7 London bombings. Tang, a powdered citrus drink, would have both disguised the liquid explosive, as well as provided chemicals needed for the explosion.
Bruce Schneier’s blog is hosting a compelling debate on the likelihood that the bombers could have assembled these bombs in-flight, and how much damage they would have done. So far the consensus judgment seems dubious.
A piece in the USA Today this week highlights the use of open-source information in the U.S. intelligence community. As more information is available on the Web, it is becoming an increasingly important piece of the intel pie -- even making the President's morning briefing. There's a clash since some in the intelligence community feel that the classified sources are the most reliable, but others argue you can learn about your enemy by what he or she says in sources available for all to read. Robert David Steele, ex-CIA and Marine officer, advocates a flip-flop of spending in favor of open-source over more hush-hush sources:
I'm not a librarian saying open sources are cool and we can do this...I'm a very good former spy saying open sources are cool and we can do this."
Though it's always a battle to tell fact from fiction online, it's sure easier than getting access to classified material. Given that 19,000 FBI personnel are still waiting for desktop Internet access, it seems reasonable to devote some more resources to this type of intelligence.
In his piece "The Next Generation of Terror" for the current issue of FP, Marc Sageman describes the new reality of "leaderless jihad," in which extremist ideology and terrorist tactics spread through online social networks rather than hierarchical organizations. In light of this, it's encouraging to see some intelligence professionals shifting their focus to the dangers in plain view.
For this week's Seven Questions, "Waiting for a Cyber Pearl Harbor," FP asked Richard A. Clarke, former U.S. counterterrorism chief and former special advisor to the president on cybersecurity, about what offensive capabilities the new U.S. Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER) should have. He succinctly replied: "Highly classified ones."
Though Clarke isn't interested in mentioning specifics, someone else is. Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder of the U.S. 8th Air Force, under which AFCYBER will be housed once it's officially launched this fall, has revealed how the United States plans to "hit back" in cyberspace.
In an interview with ZDNet.co.uk, he said offensive capabilities that AFCYBER is working on include denial of service, confidential data loss, data manipulation, and system integrity loss. These "cyberpunches" will be paired with kinetic (physical) attacks. Elder said:
Offensive cyberattacks in network warfare make kinetic attacks more effective, [for example] if we take out an adversary's integrated defence systems or weapons systems. This is exploiting cyber to achieve our objectives.
Now that the U.S. military has put on its cyber boxing gloves, it looks like it'll be no holds barred in the online world.
Last month, pro-Palestinians, who hope Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state, were angered when the board game Monopoly listed "Jerusalem, Israel," as a candidate city for its world edition. Recently, though, the controversy went the other way around at Facebook, the social-networking site.
Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank, in places such as Maale Adumin and Ariel, were angered when Facebook automatically listed their hometowns as being located in Palestine. Facebook heard their outcry, however, and now residents in Israeli West Bank settlements can choose between with Israel and Palestine.
Of course, opposing Facebook groups are now looking for members. The group "ITS [sic] NOT 'PALESTINE'- IT'S 'ISRAEL'" has nearly 14,000 members, while the group "If Palestine is removed from Facebook... Im [sic] closing my account." has around 4,600 members.
It all goes to show that on the Web, nobody has a monopoly on outrage.
The headline of the day is that China is blocking YouTube. The far scarier news, however, is that China is also blocking access to both CNN and the BBC. Not on the Internet (although that's happening, too). On the airwaves. Reports BBC World Editor Mark Pruszewicz, via a blog post:
As a presenter began reading the introduction to a report on events in Tibet, screens in China showing BBC World would suddenly go black. It wasn't consistent - some reports would go out unmolested one hour, only to be taken off air the next."
CNN Bejing Bureau Chief Jamie FlorCruz confirms the same:
The news of the day was unpalatable to the Chinese censors, so most of CNN’s reports in the mainland were blacked out."
It has become tempting in recent years, thanks to endless Western media coverage of Internet controls, to think of censorship in China as merely a game of cat and mouse between clever netizens and Communist Party bureaucrats. In fact, media censorship in China remains very real and very rampant. It's not just about blocking YouTube. As FlorCruz notes, CNN reporters have been allowed into Tibet just twice in the last 10 years. Explains McClatchy's Tim Johnson, from an undisclosed location in Sichuan province:
None of us can enter Tibet, which is off limits to foreign reporters without a permit. I know of only one foreign journalist, James Miles of The Economist, who had the good fortune to be in Lhasa as events unfolded over the past few days.... We foreign reporters all take precautions. We have to switch vehicles often. Some of us swap out SIM cards in our mobile phones, or just turn them off. That way, authorities cannot triangulate mobile phone signals and figure out our locations."
In bidding for the Olympic Games, China promised the International Olympic Committee improvments on human rights and media freedoms. Just before the Tibet protests, Beijing's media minders had began touting increased freedoms for reporters. But if their behavior over the last week is any indication, they were never too serious about that at all.
The Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency, launched a blog yesterday in continued efforts to shed some of its secrecy and boost recruitment among high-tech professionals. Reviews are mixed at best so far, as people feel the content is a little mundane. Since 2006, the Shin Bet has stepped up public ad campaigns to attract talent from the private sector. According to the Associated Press, "the bloggers work on the technological side of the Shin Bet's operations rather than in the field." I think the public is saying they want to hear from some real field officers, not the techies. After all, would you rather read a blog by James Bond or Q?
Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising quite a few eyebrows since he assumed the presidency, not least by leveraging French civilian nuclear expertise to gain diplomatic advantage in the Middle East. This week, the International Herald Tribune noted "unease" among nonproliferation experts "at the idea of exporting potentially nuclear-bomb usable technologies to proliferation-prone regions." The article also notes that, even putting proliferation concerns aside, obstacles to the large-scale spread of nuclear power exist -- some of which include high infrastructure costs, waste management issues, and personnel shortages.
France is not the only country seeking ways to surmount such obstacles, though. The U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is one of the best known of these initiatives. The core proposal behind GNEP is to employ advanced reprocessing technology to close the nuclear fuel cycle as much as possible. This entails recycling burnt nuclear fuel over and over until it is no longer useful for producing electricity or weapons. In so doing, GNEP aims to increase effective fuel supplies, decrease the amount of waste produced by nuclear power plants, and reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation. As initially conceived, existing nuclear exporters would (exclusively) perform enrichment and reprocessing services and provide them to any GNEP partner that agreed to refrain from enriching or reprocessing fuel on its own.
So far, it has signed on 21 nations as partners and has several others observing or interested. Most recently, the UK joined, praising GNEP for promoting "responsible nuclear development." In theory, this all sounds great, but GNEP has been attacked from several angles. Perhaps most crucially, the National Academies of Science and Engineering found that the required technologies are "too early in development" to justify large-scale implementation. Others (pdf) argue that reprocessing is economically unsound (at least for now); that waste issues won't be eased significantly; and that, using current technology, the initiative may actually be more proliferation-prone than the current nuclear fuel cycle.
As a result, Congress slashed funding for GNEP in the FY2008 budget, but the Bush administration has requested a significant increase for FY09. In addition, the program does seem to have broad international appeal. Partners include countries as widely spread as Bulgaria, Ghana, Poland, Senegal, and South Korea. With so many other nations involved, GNEP seems likely to persist in some form despite congressional opposition. But given the state of reprocessing science today and the political restrictions under which it operates, GNEP will likely undergo some significant changes in the future.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have threatened to burn down cellular towers throughout Afghanistan unless the main wireless companies shut down service between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m. each night. Why? Taliban commanders are convinced that coalition forces are using the cell networks to track their fighters. (They don't seem to understand that while coalition forces might use the Afghan mobile networks for some intel, they certainly aren't dependent on them. Thank you, spy satellites.)
And now they've made good on their threat. In a country that is nearly wholly reliant on wireless communications (for lack of any land-line infrastructure), the main mobile networks (all privately run) have begun switching off service at night after attacks on 10 cell towers, the latest on Tuesday night. Score this round for the Taliban.
I can only hope that the frustration of not being able to make calls past dusk will inspire public condemnation of the men who forced the blackout. But then again, the government vowed to help the private sector stand up to Taliban pressure. And that unsuccessful stand hardly inspires confidence.
As the space debris settles from the U.S. operation to take out its own satellite, the policy repercussions are quite clear: We have entered a new space age. Here's why, according to International Herald Tribune:
[O]fficials and experts have made it clear that the United States, for better or worse, is committed to having the capacity to wage war in space. And that, it seems likely, will prompt others to keep pace... What makes people want to ban war in space is exactly what keeps the Pentagon's war planners busy preparing for it: The United States has become so dependent on space that it has become the country's Achilles' heel."
This refers to the U.S. military's heavy use of satellite capabilities. So, was the United States wrong in brushing aside recent calls for de-weaponization of space? Not according to Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Space weapons are not the problem, he argues, nor is it effective to ostensibly ban them as Russia and China have proposed:
The biggest deficiency in the Russian-Chinese draft treaty is that it focuses on the wrong threat: weapons in space. There aren't any today, nor are there likely to be any in the immediate future. The threat to space assets is rather from weapons on earth -- the land- and sea-based kinetic, directed-energy and electromagnetic attack systems. The treaty entirely ignores these."
The United States' technological capabilities and needs are contributing to a loss of innocence in how the country approaches space. U.S. space policy has become a nearly impossible balancing act of maintaining defensive capabilities without becoming a strategic menace. If Tellis's argument -- that a treaty cannot provide the sweeping restrictions and enforcement necessary to keep space peaceful -- proves true, it implies an uncertain, worrisome future. The U.S. satellite shootdown may thus herald a bigger change than was anticipated. Could this have been "the kinetic kill vehicle heard 'round the world?"
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may think they have their hands full with NAFTA, but just wait until it's time to renegotiate DSFTA, the Deep Space Free Trade Agreement. In the latest issue of Astropolitics, political scientist John Hickman thinks where no social scientist has thunk before in his new article, "Problems of Interplanetary and Interstellar Trade."
Hickman believes that interplanetary trade could be one of the primary economic drivers for space exploration in the future. The potential problems are by no means minor, however. First of all, the vast distances between solar systems would probably prohibit the transportation of tangible goods. (Though, as Hickman points out, transatlantic trade probably seemed just as fanciful to traders in renaissance Europe.) There may however be potential for trade in non-tangible goods such digital entertainment, or scientific information with newly discovered alien species. But even this is not without dilemmas that would give Austan Goolsbee a migraine.
How will we enforce contracts or copyright laws on a civilization 20 light-years away? How will we set up a banking system or transferable currency without any tangible goods to trade? How will we protect ourselves from strange new ideas and ideologies that may destroy the fabric of our society? Worst of all, how will we trade with a species that may not even have a concept of trade?
Economic exchange itself might be "alien" to the aliens. Members of an alien species may not experience the same intense sense of self that is exhibited in rationally self-interested economic exchange among humans. Instead, a collective identity could be dominant. Money might not exist and without it neither would complex markets or banking. If they do engage in economic exchange it might take a form akin to potlatch, the competitive gift-giving for status solely among members of the same tribe traditional among societies in Melanesia and the Pacific Northwest. Moreover an alien species might not live in separate societies and could thus have no conception of trade between different societies with different cultures.
Can we maintain our free-market values and still trade with these hippie space communists? Hickman proposes establishing a "solar system monetary union" or publicly administered "planetary clearinghouse" under which interplanetary merchants could operate. The good news is, even after discovering alien life, we would still need to decode their language and acquire a basic cultural understanding before we can even think about initiating trade. This should give us enough time to bone up on all 285 Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.
Travis Daub contributed to this post.
UPDATE: Tyler Cowen weighs in --
[R]eciprocal, tit-for-tat exchange would work just fine, provided that a) relativity did not slow down the exchange of information too much, and b) not too many Ohio voters watched that movie where the aliens send us their genetic information, embedded in an apparently innocuous transmission, and trick us into downloading those instructions and then cloning them en masse... In other words, we probably cannot trade with aliens.
Late Wednesday night, the U.S.S. Lake Erie used its Aegis missile-defense system to shoot down an ailing reconnaissance satellite as it passed over the Pacific. Aegis is a key piece of the larger U.S. missile-defense system, combining extremely sophisticated ship-borne radars with heat-seeking interceptor missiles that can reach targets in low orbits (such as short- to mid-range ballistic missiles). After successfully using Aegis to knock out a target it was ostensibly never designed for, some may ask if this test of the system proves that the American missile-defense system works.
In a word, the answer is no. The mission is a qualified success for Aegis, since satellites and ballistic missiles share many characteristics at certain stages of flight. But taking out a crippled satellite and destroying an attacking ballistic missile are not the same thing. Most importantly, the satellite's trajectory was known in great detail and it could not maneuver under its own power. That's not the case for enemy ballistic missiles, which have unknown trajectories for large portions of their flights (though we can often guess where they're headed). Advanced missiles, moreover, are likely to be able to maneuver themselves midcourse and release decoys to confuse the missile-defense interceptors. Since
Finally, Navy personnel were able to choose the location and timing of the intercept. This allowed them to maximize visibility, to wait until the seas were calm enough for an ideal launch, and to keep as many radars and telescopes as necessary nearby to guide the interceptor and track the launch. The satellite was also several times larger than a ballistic missile would have been and was therefore easier to see.
That said, the fact that the Pentagon was able to reprogram missile-defense hardware for an anti-satellite shot in roughly a month is a geopolitically loaded development.
For the first time ever, the United States will use a ship-based missile to take out a satellite. In the next day or two, the world will witness a modified weapons capability that will have significant policy implications. But it's the "how" story behind the scenes that has Russia sweating.
The spy satellite malfunctioned hours after reaching orbit in December 2006. When re-entry became imminent beginning in January of this year, the U.S. Navy got busy computer coding. The Navy can now outfit a standard missile (SM-3) that was designed for intercepting other missiles with a new brain that gives it the ability to target spacecraft. In this instance, the missiles will come from an Aegis cruiser, but ground-based missiles like the ones the United States wants to put in Poland can be larger and have farther range.
Theresa Hitchens, director of the space security program at the Center for Defense Information, noted the comments of General James E. Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in a press conference that it took the Navy three weeks to reconfigure the new targeting software. The implication? Hitchens told me:
If [the United States] wanted to develop that type of software (that could be downloaded into the missiles that would be placed in Poland), we could in a very short period of time. So I understand why the Russians might be pretty nervous about this."
A little software change, in other words, could end up posing a big threat to strategic spacecraft in the future. General Cartwright insisted this new capability will be executed on a "one-time reversible basis." But there's no way the U.S. military would throw away the keys to a new generation of missiles. The Russians would probably prefer that this Pandora's box not be opened, but once it is, all space-faring countries are going to have a new threat to worry about.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a U.S. spy satellite that had gone haywire and might need to be shot down. I noted how diplomatically sensitive it would be for the United States to do so after telling China that anti-satellite tests are a big no-no. Some commentators downplayed the possibility that the United States would really shoot the satellite down, but now comes word that it's gonna happen: The U.S. military will use its missile-defense system to blow the errant satellite to smithereens.
Mind you, a missile-defense system is not supposed to be a dual-use satellite killer. U.S. officials have pledged compliance with space and weapons treaties by giving other countries advance notice before shooting off space missiles. They also insist the move is necessary to prevent contamination from toxic substances and is not a showcase of U.S. weapons capability. Still, in the wake of the Chinese satellite missile hoopla, it smacks of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
What's more, shooting the satellite down could create orbital debris, which was a major point of criticism after the Chinese experiment. U.S. officials insist the Chinese test was different in nature as it was higher in altitude and the resulting debris poses a much longer-term threat. They estimate the mess from the U.S. operation will fall to the Earth within a few weeks, whereas debris from the Chinese test will be a danger for decades.
Meanwhile, Russia and
Recent reports from European diplomats have revealed a worrisome development: Iran is testing a new, more sophisticated type of centrifuge for enriching uranium. On a technical level, this demonstrates the skills of Iran's engineers, who appear to have applied "considerable technical creativity" to solve problems caused by manufacturing limitations along with export controls and sanctions. Politically, it demonstrates that Iran has, for now, no intention of bowing to U.N. Security Council demands and ceasing its enrichment activities.
Dubbed the IR-2, Iran's new centrifuge model is an Iranian-designed variant of the P-2 centrifuge used in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. The original P-2 design, obtained by
Even though the IR-2 appears to be easier for
While not proof that
That said, relatively little concrete information on this development is in the public domain. Watch this space for more detailed commentary when the IAEA releases its next report, hopefully at the end of the month.
Wired's Megan McCarthy took a look at where employees at Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are sending their campaign donations:
Microsoft employees have donated a total of about $130,000 to Clinton, far more than any of the other six major candidates, according to a searchable database of the political donations at Fundrace, a project of the Huffington Post.
At Google, donations favored Obama over the New York senator by $97,771 to $46,610.
Yahoo staff also donated more money to Obama's campaign by almost two-thirds.
Here's the full breakdown. Not so many Republicans in Silicon Valley, eh?
When pricing a house next door to the contaminated site of a former uranium smelter, even a house with waterfront access, most realtors would aim low. In Sydney, though, one such house is on the market for roughly $3.6 million. The realtor describes the site nearby, full of radioactive dirt contaminated with "traces" of uranium and thorium, as just "a slight variation from the norm."
Not surprisingly, the house has been on the market for awhile. Many potential buyers have expressed interest, but so far nobody has purchased it (the crackle of Geiger counters from across the street may have something to do with this). As nuclear power expands, though, it is worth examining just how dangerous such contamination can really be.
Few specifics about the case in Sydney have been released, but it is possible to speak generally about the materials involved. Uranium is only mildly radioactive, and exposure even to high levels of uranium is not known to cause cancer (high levels, if ingested, can cause kidney and tissue damage, though). So, "traces" of it are unlikely to be dangerous. Thorium can give you cancer if you inhale it in large amounts (or possibly when you ingest it), but has not been known to cause birth defects or fertility problems, as some other radioactive materials can. Again, "traces" of thorium are likely harmless.
The wild card in this situation is the radioactivity from the soil. When certain types of powerful radiation encounter everyday materials, those materials can become "activated." In other words, they become radioactive (to a weaker degree) themselves. However, after nearly a century, the soil at this site in Sydney would have reverted to a very low, though perhaps above "background," level of radioactivity. (The New South Wales government and an independent consultancy say the radiation level is higher than background, but safe.)
While a higher than usual level of radiation in the area sounds scary, it is probably not all that dangerous. Many studies have found that constant exposure to low levels of radiation does not pose a health risk. One study, performed by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, found no increased cancer risk for people living near 62 large nuclear facilities. If nuclear power spreads, we should remain vigilant, but there is no need for paranoia.
More than 95 percent of international telephone and data traffic travels via undersea cables. Knowing that, it's still surprising that an accident in Egypt can bring down most of the Internet... in India. Today, Internet users from Cairo to Calcutta are either without the Web or their service is operating at a fraction of its normal capacity. The culprit? A ship off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, dragged its anchor and snagged two major underwater telecommunications cables. Unfortunately for Internet addicts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, and India, the SeaMeWe-4 and FLAG Europe-Asia cables, which carry the majority of Internet service between Western Europe and the Middle East and South Asia, were the ones cut. See the handy map below from the folks at TeleGeography for the specifics:
Stephan Beckert at TeleGeography told me that cuts to undersea cables are actually quite common, but rarely does it happen to two cables at once—and to cables that bear so much traffic. Of course, disasters do happen: Internet and telephone service in Asia was disrupted for weeks in December 2006 after nine undersea cables were damaged due to a big earthquake off the coast of Taiwan. But there's not as much risk of disruption when there are a host of other cables (such as between, say, North American and Europe) for traffic to spill onto. Here's a fascinating map of the traffic our current system of underwater cables can handle:
It's unclear when normal service could be restored to the affected countries; it could be a few days or as long as two weeks. The Arabist, an anonymous blogger based in Egypt, sarcastically predicts "complete social breakdown" when people find themselves unable to update Facebook every few minutes. Here's hoping it doesn't come to that.
A U.S. spy satellite has gone rogue and will likely come crashing down to the surface sometime in the next month or two. That's bad news, as the satellite is roughly the size of a school bus and may contain hazardous material. (The largest historical instance of "uncontrolled entry" was Skylab, which crashed and burned in 1979 in the Indian Ocean and the western Australian outback. Luckily, nobody was hurt.)
The satellite's fall to Earth presents an interesting dilemma for the U.S. administration. Let gravity take its course, and there's a chance innocent people could get hurt. Shoot it down, and the Bush administration might get into diplomatic trouble with China and create an unintended international precedent. Remember when, after China's anti-satellite missile test last January, the United States was harshly critical of the Chinese government? If the United States is now forced to shoot its own satellite down, it may only reinforce the impression abroad that America just does whatever it wants in space, but looks askance at strategic space activities by other countries. Beijing may leap at the chance to accuse Washington of promoting a double standard.
This is exactly why it's time to push for an international treaty banning space weapons, opponents of the weaponization of the final frontier might argue. I don't want space missiles from other countries pointed at my house any more than the next guy, but I do wonder if a space arms race isn't the more likely outcome. The capabilities space affords corporations and governments are just too powerful to leave unprotected, unfortunately, and the Chinese probably see "Star Wars" as one area where they can catch up with the United States.
Tyler Cowen relays some disturbing news:
It turns out, by the way, that the world's supply of Cavendish bananas -- the ones we eat -- is endangered by disease (more here) and many experts believe the entire strain will vanish. Most other banana strains are much harder to cultivate and transport on a large scale, so enjoy your bananas while you can. The previous and supposedly tastier major strain of banana -- Gros Michel -- is already gone and had disappeared by the 1950s, again due to disease. Today, European opposition to GMO is one factor discouraging progress in developing a substitute and more robust banana crop.
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