Two US spacewalkers start

work on robotic arm repair


MIAMI (AFP): Two US astronauts floated outside the International Space Station on Tuesday to start a new round of repairs on the orbiting outpost’s aging robotic arm, NASA said. The spacewalk began at 6:49 am (1149 GMT) when NASA flight engineers Mark Vande Hei and Scott Tingle switched their spacesuits to internal battery power, then made their way outside the airlock and into the vacuum of space. The goal of the six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk is to replace a spare latching end on the 57-foot (17-meter) Canadian-made robotic arm, called Canadarm2. The arm is used to grasp incoming cargo ships and to move items around outside the space lab. The station’s robotic arm “has experienced some degradation of its snaring cables,” NASA said in a statement. The arm has been a key piece of equipment at the orbiting outpost for 17 years, but in August it lost its ability to grip effectively. In October 2017, NASA astronauts completed three spacewalks to repair the robotic arm and replace cameras necessary to get a good view of the approaching cargo ships.

Tuesday’s outing was the first career spacewalk for Tingle, and the third for Vande Hei.

Another spacewalk is planned for January 29, including Vande Hei and flight engineer Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), to continue the repair work.




South Korea to criminalise

suicide pacts


SEOUL (AFP): South Korea is to make organising a suicide pact a criminal offence, officials said Tuesday, as the government seeks to reduce one of the world’s highest rates of self-killing. The suicide rate in Asia’s fourth-largest economy has increased sharply since 2000 to 25.6 a year per 100,000 people, twice the average for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries. Prominent suicides regularly make headlines - K-pop singer Kim Jong-Hyun killed himself last month - but most victims are elderly in a country where social safety nets are weak. The criminalisation of suicide pacts was among a series of measures approved by the cabinet Tuesday. TV dramas and web cartoons glorifying suicides will also be discouraged, and suicide prevention education will be required for all soldiers. Seoul aims to lower the suicide rate to 17 per 100,000 by 2022. The government said more than 90 percent of those who killed themselves sent warning signals in advance and suicides could largely be prevented through people paying attention.

Examinations for depression will be included in mandatory annual health checkups for all South Koreans from their 40s to their 70s.




Japan’s latest overtime example? Xiang Xiang the panda


TOKYO (AFP): By popular demand, Tokyo’s new panda cub Xiang Xiang is working extra hours from Tuesday, the latest example of overtime in a country famous for its hard-working “salarymen.” Ueno zoo’s first baby panda since 1988 will be on display for an extra two hours every day until the end of January and working a full seven-hour day from February to cater to the thousands of fans of the cuddly celebrity. Munching on bamboo shoots and nuzzling her mother, the bright-eyed seven-month-old has been the object of major media attention, with visitors clad in panda paraphernalia flocking to see her since her first public appearance in December. More than a quarter of a million fans entered a lottery to get a first glimpse but zoo officials initially limited visitors to 400 per day during a three-hour window. Until the end of January however, panda fans can get a first-come, first-served ticket to see Xiang Xiang, who will be on display for five hours a day.

And from February, the hours are expected to be extended again - to a seven-hour shift - as the zoo seeks to accommodate up to 9,500 fans of the curious cub.

Some visitors at the zoo on Tuesday were not sure whether the baby panda was ready for grown-up working hours.

Asami Sato, a 45-year-old mother visiting with daughter Yuriya, questioned whether the cub was ready for so much exposure.

“It must feel unnatural,” she said, “but as long as she is happy and not stressed, I guess it’s OK.”

Dennis Pook, 36, an assistant manager, said the extended hours were “too much, too fast.”

“I think the increase is very sudden. If they had extended the hours more slowly and let the panda adapt, it would probably be a lot better,” he said.

For Chinese student Chen Gingya, 20, the most surprising part of the issue was the massive attention Xiang Xiang has attracted.

“Pandas are not much of a novelty to me back home. I think it’s interesting to see people queue for so long though. The extended hours will probably help the crowd to be honest,” she said.

To avoid congestion, each visitor gets two minutes to observe the cub - along with her 12-year-old mother Shin Shin.

There are no limits for viewing Xiang Xiang’s father Ri Ri in the neighbouring enclosure.




Over 100 endangered turtles

hatch in Singapore


SINGAPORE (AFP): Over 100 baby turtles have hatched on a Singapore beach before being released into the sea, authorities said Tuesday, in a boost for the critically endangered creatures. A nest of Hawksbill turtle eggs was discovered in November on Sentosa, a popular resort island south of Singapore’s main island. A barrier was erected to keep the nest safe from predators, and officials carried out regular checks, said Sentosa Development Corporation, which manages the island. On Friday 106 eggs hatched and, after officials carried out tests, the baby turtles were sent off scurrying down the beach and into the sea. It was the third time that Hawksbill turtle eggs had hatched on Singapore’s beaches since August and the first time in eight years on Sentosa, the Straits Times newspaper reported. Hawksbills get their names from their narrow pointed beaks and are found throughout the world‘s tropical oceans, mainly around coral reefs. They are threatened by damage to their natural habitats by pollution and coastal developments, and are also targeted by poachers. Their body parts are used to make turtle soup and shells are crushed into powder for use in jelly dessert.

The Hawksbill shell is also used to make products like combs and ornamental hairpins.