15 February: Astronauts put finishing touches to space station chill room

By Branko Brkic 15 February 2010

Also today: Nato’s Afghan offensive continues; Clinton spells out US position on Iran to Arabs; Goldman Sachs sold Greeks debt lemon similar to sub-prime mortgages; India’s nationalists want Pakistan peace talks cancelled as bomb rips through city bakery; Spanish deny economy is danger to Eurozone; Cold War memories dredged up over covert salvage of sunken Soviet sub.


Astronauts put finishing touches to space station chill room


The International Space Station’s now has a chill space called the Tranquility room, with an observation deck so that astronauts can sit and gaze into eternity. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but science took a back seat as spacewalkers hooked up the plumbing, and fixed an ammonia leak in completing work on the last major addition to the 11-year-old space station. The Shuttle Endeavour carried up the room’s components last week. The ammonia coolant was needed to turn on power in the room, as most of its systems couldn’t be switched on without getting rid of heat generated by equipment. Luckily the leaking ammonia formed solid crystals in the vacuum of space, so mission controllers don’t think that the astronauts’ spacesuits were contaminated. Video grab: Reuters.

Read more: Space.com, Voice of America, ABH News


Nato’s Afghan offensive continues


The second day of the biggest offensive since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, saw Marines and Afghan troops occupying much of the town of Marjah on Sunday. The Taliban use Marjah as a stronghold right in the centre of opium-producing country, using cash from the drugs trade to fund weapons. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates says by degrading the capability of the Taliban, Nato allies and their Afghan counterparts will be able to eliminate al-Qaeda. Marjah is the largest town under Taliban control, and the allies want to set up a local government and rush in development aid to win the hearts and minds of the city’s residents. Troops cleared out booby-trapped houses and advanced down streets littered with bombs and mines, as insurgents continue to hold onto some areas of Marjah.

Read more: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The New York Times, YouTube, Voice of America


Clinton spells out US position on Iran to Arabs


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the US-Islamic World forum in Qatar that the US welcomes peaceful engagement with Iran, but not while the Iranians are making dangerous policy decisions. She’s trying to rally Arab support for tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, claiming Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb. She’s also taking her first official trip to Saudi Arabia, as the Obama administration steps up pressure on Iran by launching a diplomatic offensive in the Arabian Gulf. Iran recently said it would enrich uranium up to 20%, a level of refinement that the West says is more than what’s needed to generate nuclear-powered electricity. Washington wants the UN Security Council to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Tehran, but China is still holding out.

Read more: Voice of America, BBC, Reuters


Goldman Sachs sold Greeks debt lemon similar to sub-prime mortgages


Goldman Sachs, one of the Wall Street companies that dealt in subprime mortgages that crashed global markets, also went to Greece to sell on complex financial products that let the Greeks continue deficit spending ahead of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Now the whole Eurozone is worried that the country will collapse under a $270 billion debt pile. Newly-public records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, Greece engaged in a 10-year effort to obviate European annual debt limits of 3% of gross domestic product. Instead, the country clocked up a 12.7% yearly budget deficit, and in one deal cooked up by Goldman Sachs, obscured billions in debt from the EU’s budget bureaucrats in Brussels. Much as they did on Wall Street, banks are said to have looked for ways to help Greece obscure systemic financial failure even as markets were imploding. Expect bank executives to now be called to European hearings, after the grilling of US bankers on Capitol Hill. And expect this to have US President Barack Obama’s blessings.

Read more: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Daily Mail


India’s nationalists want Pakistan peace talks cancelled as bomb rips through city bakery


India’s Hindu nationalists say new peace talks with Pakistan should be scrapped after a bomb killed nine people and wounded 57 in a crowded bakery in the city of Pune, some 200 kilometers southeast of Mumbai. The nationalists blame the attack on Pakistan, a claim which gains credence after Indian officials said a suspect in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks also surveyed Pune. Tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours are now likely to rise further, as the blast was the first big terrorist attack in India since the Mumbai massacre killed 166 people. Security forces are now on high alert at airports, train stations and markets across the country. The nationalists say until Pakistan stops letting terrorists base themselves there and punishes those involved in the Mumbai attacks, talks can’t begin.

Read more: AP, The Australian, The Telegraph


Spanish deny economy is danger to Eurozone


Some worry that Spain be the next Greece, after a real estate- and consumer-spending splurge left the country with nearly 20% unemployment. But the Spanish say their debt burden isn’t nearly as high as Greece’s $270 billion, although a 2009 government deficit of 11.4% of gross domestic product has got markets worried. The deficit far exceeds the Eurozone limit of 3%, and because of this, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain are called PIGS by leery investors. However, Spain’s national debt as a proportion of GDP is only 66% for 2010, well below the EU average, and far less than Greece’s 113.4% for 2009. That said, Spanish sovereign debt is now more expensive, and insurance costs that protect it against default are also rising. Spain’s economy is much larger than that of Greece, so it’s a bigger and potentially more damaging domino if it does fall.

Read more: Guardian, AP, Bloomberg, Market Watch


Cold War memories dredged up over covert salvage of sunken Soviet sub


After more than 30 years of denials, the CIA has released an internal account of Project Azorian, when in 1974 the US salvaged a sunken Soviet nuclear-submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. The account was made public after private researchers from the National Security Archive used the Freedom of Information Act to declassify the mission, which took place during the peak of the Cold War. The 50-page article was published in a 1985 CIA in-house journal that non-spooks generally don’t get to see. Raising the sub to the surface cost a bundle, and involved vastly expensive engineering feats under the pretext that the salvage ship was a commercial research vessel. But it seems that what got dragged up turned out to be of limited value, and much of the really juicy stuff is still buried nearly 5 kilometres under water, or is in classified CIA documents. The world basically knew what was going on at the time from media stories, but had no official corroboration. Bet you some US taxpayers’ are still cross about that.

Read more: AP, Time


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