For Rex Tillerson in Russia, stakes are high and outlook is dim

Donald Trump entered office in January vowing to improve US relations with Russia. Less than three months into his presidency, however, the prospects for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be as remote as they were under any of his predecessors.

The extent of tensions and disagreements between the United States and Russia will be on display on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a much anticipated encounter.

Where’s the love now?

Tillerson’s April 12 visit to Russia is the first by a top Trump administration official. A former oilman who made many trips to Russia while CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson is still learning the ropes as America’s top diplomat.

Just a few weeks ago, Tillerson’s trip was seen as a test of Trump’s commitment to developing a better relationship with Moscow. But after a week of diplomatic fallout following US military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the summit’s main goal now is to avoid a dangerous escalation of the situation in Syria and in US-Russia bilateral relations.

The US bombing came in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on rebel-held territory in Idlib Province on April 4 that killed at least 80 civilians, including women and children, and sickened hundreds more. The United States and other Western governments claim the Assad regime was responsible. American warships in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 cruise missiles against the military air base in western Syria believed to be where the attack originated.

Secretary Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Bonn, Germany in February 2017.
US Department of State

Russia called the missile strikes an act of aggression and a violation of international law. Assad remains Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East and one of its only allies outside the post-Soviet sphere.

Tillerson’s ties to Russia aroused scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans during his confirmation hearings in January, and almost derailed his nomination. But since then he has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s strongest Russia critics.

He has called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to maintain a stockpile of chemical weapons following a 2013 agreement to disarm Assad of banned weapons, and suggested that the Russians may have been “outmaneuvered” by the Assad regime. The White House on Tuesday April 11 went further, accusing Russia of trying to cover up the attack.

Over the past week, Tillerson and other US officials have accused Russia of playing an increasingly disruptive role not just in Syria but also across Europe, just as it interfered in last year’s US presidential election.

Most difficult relations since the Cold War

In response to a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists, Tillerson is likely to remind Russian officials of their commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement, namely the importance of enforcing the ceasefire. Pentagon officials have also accused Russia of violating an important arms-control agreement signed in the 1980s.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, “It is obvious that Russian-American relations are going through the most difficult period since the end of the Cold War.”

At Tuesday’s G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy, Tillerson said the reign of the Assad regime was “coming to an end,” and called on Russia to end its support for it. Continued support for Assad will only serve to embarrass Russia, he said, and make it irrelevant in the Middle East.

Still, Washington is sending mixed signals on how it plans to deal with Syria. The Trump administration does not yet have a clear policy regarding the conflict, or what the level of US involvement will be going forward. It is not yet clear whether last week’s strike will be a one off – a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people again – or whether it signals a broader strategic shift in the US approach to the civil war there, which is now in its sixth year.

Russia, on the other hand, is concerned that the US strike might signal the emergence of a more assertive foreign policy under the Trump administration. It could signal Trump’s willingness to use military force, and perhaps even a readiness to pursue military interventions and regime change. They see their interests clashing with the United States not just in Syria but possibly over North Korea and Iran as well.

What’s possible

So what can Tillerson achieve in Moscow? Neither government expects any breakthroughs on the issues that currently divide them. Russia has moved closer to Iran, Assad’s other main backer, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin will be willing to distance itself from the Assad regime.

A thaw in relations between the United States and Russia seems unlikely, and even common ground will be hard to find. Both countries increasingly see the other as an adversary, convinced that each is out to undermine the other.

The civil war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Half the population has been displaced, and it has led to one of the worst refugee crises since the second world war. The latest ceasefire, reached in December 2016, is faltering, and UN-backed peace talks have accomplished little.

An end to the slaughter will require the active coordination of the United States and Russia. But, given current tensions between Moscow and Washington, this possibility seems more unlikely than ever.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NASA to Reveal New Discoveries in News Conference on Oceans Beyond Earth

NASA will discuss new results about ocean worlds in our solar system from the agency’s Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope during a news briefing 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 13. The event, to be held at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington, will include remote participation from experts across the country.

The briefing will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

These new discoveries will help inform future ocean world exploration — including NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission planned for launch in the 2020s — and the broader search for life beyond Earth.

The news briefing participants will be:

  • Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters
  • Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters
  • Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
  • Hunter Waite, Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team lead at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio
  • Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

A question-and-answer session will take place during the event with reporters on site and by phone. Members of the public also can ask questions during the briefing using #AskNASA.

To participate by phone, reporters must contact Dwayne Brown at 202-358-1726 or dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov and provide their media affiliation no later than noon April 13.

For NASA TV downlink information, schedules and to view the news briefing, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

For more information on ocean worlds, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/specials/ocean-worlds

For more information on Cassini, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

For more information on Hubble, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/hubble

-end-

Felicia Chou/ Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
202 358 0257 / 202-358-1077
felicia.chou@nasa.gov / dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Rob Gutro
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
301-286-4044
robert.j.gutro@nasa.gov

Editor: Katherine Brown

Photo Credit: NASA

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US airstrike on Syria: What next?

Make no mistake. The April 6 U.S. airstrike on Syria following Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack is a remarkable shift in President Donald Trump’s – and Washington’s – past policy.

As president-elect, Trump’s Middle Eastern concerns centered on defeating the Islamic State and depicted Syria’s millions of refugees as potential extremists and a threat to U.S. borders. The president now justifies American attacks on Syrian airfields as a “vital national security interest of the U.S.

Trump himself said that Tuesday’s ghastly chemical attacks changed his mind on the Assad regime. Just as suddenly, U.S.-based Middle Eastern experts and key foreign leaders have approved this U.S. policy move. Some Syrians, too, are showing appreciation for “Abu Ivanka,” or the “Father of Ivanka.”

Moreover, the U.S. airstrikes may have involved some strategic thought and multilateral diplomacy, two central aspects of foreign policymaking not previously associated with the Trump administration. The choice of the airfield for attack was a limited, comparatively low-stakes target. Both Russia and Syria had advance knowledge from the U.S. of the attack.

Syrian and Russian outrage at the U.S. involvement is an expected response to this first open major American military action against Assad since the 2011 civil war began. But that doesn’t mean the conflict will necessarily entangle the U.S. more deeply. Indeed, Russian frustration with the particular nastiness of its ally’s chemical attack may make the US strike a relief to President Vladimir Putin because it signals to Assad that he had better be careful about how he tries to reassert control over Syria. That signal, however, need not undermine Assad himself.

A one-time thing?

So what comes next for U.S. policy?

Was this a one-off U.S. intervention reflective of Trump’s interest in doing “something” in response to a particularly shocking event?

Or did Trump wish to look strong after critiques of his foreign policy during a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping or distract attention from his overall low approval ratings?

We don’t know, because the U.S. leader has shown limited consistent attention to foreign policy.

The easiest guess? Trump’s lack of prior expertise in the Syrian crisis, his moves back toward the U.S.‘ more typical globalized outlook and apparent genuine shock at Assad’s brutality may signal a real shift. Yet, even if so, it is unlikely founded on a broader policy vision. The problem of what Trump does when faced with a complex global challenge, without the background and fully staffed bureaucracy to respond rapidly, has been raised appropriately by journalists and pundits. We have seen no sign so far that the White House has a strategy on Assad larger than the air strike.

Of course, Assad, Putin and Iran’s leadership do have such strategies. They involve continued strengthening of the Syrian strongman’s power.

The long-term, entrenched nature of these countries’ commitments casts doubt that the U.S. for now will take bigger steps to undermine Assad’s recently improved position in Syria. The Trump administration has expressed indifference toward complex diplomacy. Indeed, greater U.S. determination to adopt a multipronged, multilateral effort to weaken Assad or crush Syrian opposition might make defeating the Islamic State harder. It would embroil Trump in a problem that proved too vexing for the extensive brainpower and experience of the Obama administration. And it might risk long-term, unpopular military engagement, with greater responsibility for state-building, like what bedeviled Washington a decade ago in Iraq.

Moreover, in terms of broader U.S. military involvement, Syria today is not a clear analogy with Iraq in 2003. The absence of a prior attack on U.S. soil, the longer-term plan of U.S. policy advisers to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government and that government’s lack of powerful international allies are all key factors that facilitated American military escalation in Iraq that are not present in Syria.

Syrians, and people who care about Syria, might hope that a U.S. airstrike leads to new, international, creative efforts to try to alleviate Syrians’ suffering. We all know that President Trump is quite capable of actions that surprise. Could a sustained American commitment to stop Assad’s killing be such a surprise? Such a commitment would require not quick attacks but subtle diplomacy, with the credible threat of force as one policy lever among many. It’s unlikely, but with Donald Trump, it is hard to know for sure.

David Mednicoff, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Director, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Photo Credit: Ah Tribune

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With new technology, mathematicians turn numbers into art

Once upon a time, mathematicians imagined their job was to discover new mathematics and then let others explain it.

Today, digital tools like 3-D printing, animation, and virtual reality are more affordable than ever, allowing mathematicians to investigate and illustrate their work at the same time. Instead of drawing a complicated surface on a chalkboard, we can now hand students a physical model to feel or invite them to fly over it in virtual reality.

Last year, a workshop called “Illustrating Mathematics” at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) brought together an eclectic group of mathematicians and digital art practitioners to celebrate what seems to be a golden age of mathematical visualization. Of course, visualization has been central to mathematics since Pythagoras, but this seems to be the first time it had a workshop of its own.

The atmosphere was electric. Talks ran the gamut, from wildly creative thinkers who apply mathematics in the world of design to examples of pure mathematical results discovered through computer experimentation and visualization. It shed light on how powerful visualization has become for studying and sharing mathematics.

Reimagining math

Visualization plays a growing role in mathematical research. According to John Sullivan at the Technical University of Berlin, mathematical thinking styles can be roughly categorized into three groups: “the philosopher,” who thinks purely in abstract concepts; “the analyst,” who thinks in formulas; and “the geometer,” who thinks in pictures.

Mathematical research is stimulated by collaboration between all three types of thinkers. Many practitioners believe teaching should be calibrated to connect with different thinking styles.


Borromean Rings, the logo of the International Mathematical Union.
John Sullivan

Sullivan’s own work has benefited from images. He studies geometric knot theory, which involves finding “best” configurations. For example, consider his Borromean rings, which won the logo contest of the International Mathematical Union several years ago. The rings are linked together, but if one of them is cut, the others fall apart, which makes it a nice symbol of unity.

The “bubble” version of the configuration, shown below, is minimal, in the sense that it is the shortest possible shape where the tubes around the rings do not overlap. It’s as if you were to blow a soap bubble around each of the rings in the configuration. Techniques for proving that configurations like this are optimal often involve concepts of flow: If a given configuration is not the best, there are often ways to tell it to move in a direction that will make it better. This topic has great potential for visualization.

At the workshop, Sullivan dazzled us with a video of the three bands flowing into their optimal position. This animation allowed the researchers to see their ideas in action. It would never be considered as a substitute for a proof, but if an animation showed the wrong thing happening, people would realize that they must have made an error in their mathematics.


In this version of the Borromean Rings, a virtual ‘soap bubble’ is blown around the wire-frame configuration.
John Sullivan

The digital artists

Visualization tools have helped mathematicians share their work in creative and surprising ways – even to rethink what the job of a mathematician might entail.

Take mathematician Fabienne Serrière, who raised US$124,306 through Kickstarter in 2015 to buy an industrial knitting machine. Her dream was to make custom-knit scarves that demonstrate cellular automata, mathematical models of cells on a grid. To realize her algorithmic design instructions, Serrière hacked the code that controls the machine. She now works full-time on custom textiles from a Seattle studio.

Edmund Harriss of the University of Arkansas hacked an architectural drilling machine, which he now uses to make mathematical sculptures from wood. The control process involves some deep ideas from differential geometry. Since his ideas are basically about controlling a robot arm, they have wide application beyond art. According to his website, Harriss is “driven by a passion to communicate the beauty and utility of mathematical thinking.”

Mathematical algorithms power the products made by Nervous System, a studio in Massachusetts that was founded in 2007 by Jessica Rosenkrantz, a biologist, and architect, and Jess Louis-Rosenberg, a mathematician. Many of their designs, for things like custom jewelry and lampshades, look like naturally occurring structures from biology or geology.

Their first 3-D printed dress consists of thousands of interlocking pieces designed to fit a particular model. In order to print the dress, the designers folded up their virtual version, using protein-folding algorithms. A selective laser sintering process fused together parts of a block of powder to make the dress, then let all the unwanted powder fall away to reveal its shape.

Meanwhile, a delightful collection called Geometry Games can help everyone, from elementary school students to professional mathematicians, explore the concept of space. The project was founded by mathematician Jeff Weeks, one of the rock stars of the mathematical world. The iOS version of his “Torus Games” teaches children about multiply-connected spaces through interactive animation. According to Weeks, the app is verging on one million downloads.

Mathematical wallpaper

My own work, described in my book “Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns,” starts with a visualization technique called the domain coloring algorithm.

I developed this algorithm in the 1990s to visualize mathematical ideas that have one dimension too many to see in 3-D space. The algorithm offers a way to use color to visualize something seemingly impossible to visualize in one diagram: a complex-valued function in the plane. This is a formula that takes one complex number (an expression of the form a+_b_i, which has two coordinates) and returns another. Seeing both the 2-D input and the 2-D output is one dimension more than ordinary eyes can see, hence the need for my algorithm. Now, I use it to create patterns and mathematical art.


A curve with pleasing 5-fold symmetry, constructed using Fourier techniques.
Frank A Farris

My main pattern-making strategy relies on a branch of mathematics called Fourier theory, which involves the superposition of waves. Many people are familiar with the idea that the sound of a violin string can be broken down into its fundamental frequencies. My “wallpaper functions” break down plane patterns in just the same way.

My book starts with a lesson in making symmetric curves. Taking the same idea into a new dimension, I figured out how to weave polyhedral solids – think cube, dodecahedron, and so on – from symmetric bands made from these waves. I staged three of these new shapes, using Photoshop’s 3-D ray-tracing capacity, in the “Platonic Regatta” shown below. The three windsails display the symmetries of Platonic solids: the icosahedron/dodecahedron, cube/octahedron and tetrahedron.


A Platonic Regatta. Mathematical art by Frank A. Farris shows off three types of polyhedral symmetry: icosahedral/dodecahedral, cube/octaheral and tetrahedral.
Frank Farris

About an hour after I spoke at the workshop, mathematician Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson had posted a Twitter bot to animate a new set of curves every day!

Mathematics in the 21st century has entered a new phase. Whether you want to crack an unsolved problem, teach known results to students, design unique apparel or just make beautiful art, new tools for visualization can help you do it better.

This article was updated on April 5, 2017 with the full name of Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson.

Frank A. Farris, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Santa Clara University

Photo Credit:  Frank Farris

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s at stake as President Trump sits down with China’s Xi

The U.S. and China together account for one-third of global economic output, so there is a lot at stake as President Donald Trump meets with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, not least the fate of the world economy over the next few years.

And it is precisely the magnitude of the stakes involved that has led some observers to assume that both countries will play it safe and focus on the areas of the relationship that are “win-win” relative to the areas that are more likely to produce conflict.

But there is no guarantee that this will happen. In fact, Trump may have already dealt himself a poor hand thanks to his past rhetoric on trade, which has heightened the political risk that he faces in negotiating with Xi. Perhaps more worryingly, Trump’s focus on achieving short-term victories could also tip the balance against the U.S.

At the end of the day, the two countries not only drive the world economy but also rely critically on one another, a fact that should moderate the decisions of these two strong-willed leaders. In fact, my research (with fellow economists Giovanni Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano) has highlighted the economic risks of miscalculating on trade deals, particularly those with developing countries.

A tricky trade balance

Trump has a difficult political balancing act to maintain.

On the one hand, 85 percent of Republicans believe that trade has cost more U.S. jobs than it has created. This group will presumably expect results in raising barriers to U.S. imports, particularly those from China. In fact, there is perhaps no other issue more salient to Trump’s base than the perceived harm done to U.S. workers due to international trade, and Trump has been unequivocal in his promises to scale back trade agreements, from NAFTA to the now-rejected Trans-Pacific Partnership.

On the other hand, Trump’s more moderate advisers, such as Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council, have likely cautioned him that trade is ultimately good for economic growth. And any disruption would be bad both for the U.S. and for Trump’s political future.

Having repeatedly (and unrealistically) promised at least 4 percent to 5 percent annual economic growth, Trump must be careful not to inadvertently push the economy into a ditch by abandoning the free trade principles that have made the U.S. one of the richest countries in the world.

Who will ‘win’?

Another potential pitfall for Trump is that the search for a perceived “victory” in the negotiations – something the president typically prizes above all else – is actually more likely to favor Xi.

This is because Xi’s grip on power is such that he does not need headline-grabbing wins to the extent that Trump does. Instead, he can try to extract more substantive concessions behind the scenes. This suggests that a possible outcome is that the status quo will be effectively maintained. For instance, Xi may be able to walk away with a win by simply avoiding a trade war while also obtaining an implicit promise that the U.S. will look the other way on human rights issues and Chinese regional expansion.

This isn’t to say that Trump does not have leverage – his campaign promise to raise import tariffs on China to 45 percent would be a serious blow to the Chinese economy. And of course, the U.S. can always flex its political and military strength in opposition to Chinese interests. But perhaps most unnerving for the Chinese is Trump’s unpredictability which, despite its downsides, keeps his counterparts off balance.

The concern is that Trump may use his leverage in order to obtain “tweetable” victories that do not amount to much. For instance, a likely outcome is that Trump obtains promises of future investments in the U.S. of several billions of dollars. In fact, Chinese and U.S. commentators have suggested that these investments may come as part of a larger U.S. infrastructure program. However, as with other investments that Trump has taken credit for, most of these would be made in any case (China invested $45 billion in the U.S. last year) and so come at little cost to the Chinese.

A misguided focus on trade deficits

But as with the imposition of trade barriers, Chinese investments do not come without political risk. In this case, it is the Trump administration’s obsession with the trade deficit in goods as the key metric by which it views success or failure on trade that will make life harder.

The trade deficit with China – US$347 billion in 2016 – is simply the difference between U.S. exports to China and U.S. imports from China, and this value fluctuates for a variety of reasons. When the U.S. runs a trade deficit it means that, on net, the U.S. is sending dollars to China in exchange for Chinese goods. As a simple fact of accounting, those dollars must then end up back in the U.S. as investments in U.S. assets. So investments in U.S. assets are the flip side of a trade deficit.

As a result, inviting greater Chinese investment in U.S. assets will necessarily increase the trade deficit with China. While most economists believe that the trade deficit is a poor measure of the success of a country in the world economy, National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro has repeatedly pressed the case for trade deficits as a proxy for the overall health of the U.S. economy, as has Trump.

And so, however inadvisable it may be to focus on the trade deficit, Trump is sure to pay a political price if it were to grow over the course of his tenure.

Forging a bond before the clashes ahead

In the end, the most consequential outcome of Xi’s visit may be the extent to which a bond is forged between the two leaders.

This is because Trump tends to personalize policy choices, and many of the most important issues on which the U.S. and China will need to find common ground will arise over the next few months.

For instance, although Trump has not yet formally labeled China as a currency manipulator (which he promised to do on “day one”), later in the spring the Treasury Department will publish its analysis of international currencies and may choose to place that label on China. While the Chinese would likely simply ignore such a designation, it would require the U.S. to take some form of punitive action if negotiations with China did not resolve the dispute.

But, of course, this may be small beer compared with the more pressing geopolitical issues that will be in play. These include dealing with North Korea, whether or not to confront internal repression within China and the threat of Chinese regional expansion. It would not be surprising to find that American cooperation on these fronts comes with a price tag denominated in U.S. jobs.

Finally, it is worth noting that reducing the level of trade with China will do little to help U.S. workers. This is something that nearly all economists agree on, but that politicians rarely embrace. This is because while the economy can be easily cured of a proliferation of trade agreements by simply withdrawing from, or rewriting, those accords, there is no easy cure for the proliferation of new technologies, which are the real culprits in the decline of U.S. industrial production.

And so, since trade is a policy lever that can be easily pulled, politicians inevitably rush to do so.

Greg Wright, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of California, Merced

Photo Credit: Digg Ita

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NASA’s Cassini Mission Prepares for ‘Grand Finale’ at Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since 2004, is about to begin the final chapter of its remarkable story. On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.

“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”

During its time at Saturn, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean that showed indications of hydrothermal activity within the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.

Now 20 years since launching from Earth, and after 13 years orbiting the ringed planet, Cassini is running low on fuel. In 2010, NASA decided to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet’s moons for future exploration – especially the potentially habitable Enceladus.

But the beginning of the end for Cassini is, in many ways, like a whole new mission. Using expertise gained over the mission’s many years, Cassini engineers designed a flight plan that will maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its fateful plunge into the planet on Sept. 15. As it ticks off its terminal orbits during the next five months, the mission will rack up an impressive list of scientific achievements.

“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”

The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn’s clouds and inner rings. The team currently is making final checks on the list of commands the robotic probe will follow to carry out its science observations, called a sequence, as it begins the finale. That sequence is scheduled to be uploaded to the spacecraft on Tuesday, April 11.

Cassini will transition to its grand finale orbits, with a last close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, on Saturday, April 22. As it has many times over the course of the mission, Titan’s gravity will bend Cassini’s flight path. Cassini’s orbit then will shrink so that instead of making its closest approach to Saturn just outside the rings, it will begin passing between the planet and the inner edge of its rings.

“Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft. But we’re also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it’s safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “Certainly there are some unknowns, but that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this kind of daring exploration at the end of the mission.”

In mid-September, following a distant encounter with Titan, the spacecraft’s path will be bent so that it dives into the planet. When Cassini makes its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, it will send data from several instruments – most notably, data on the atmosphere’s composition – until its signal is lost.

“Cassini’s grand finale is so much more than a final plunge,” said Spilker. “It’s a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission.”

Resources on Cassini’s grand finale, including images and video, are available at:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/grand-finale/grand-finale-resources

An animated video about Cassini’s Grand Finale is available at:

https://youtu.be/xrGAQCq9BMU

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information about Cassini is at:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

-end-

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Editor: Karen Northon

 

Photo Credit: NASA

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Can the relationship between Europe and Africa stand the test of time?

The signing of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC) 60 years ago in March 1957, came at a tumultuous time in relations between Europe and Africa.

Just weeks earlier Kwame Nkrumah had declared Ghana a republic, an event which was a turning point in the decolonisation of sub-Saharan Africa.

Nkrumah remarked that the treaty’s inclusion of colonial territories was to neocolonialism what the Berlin Treaty of 1885 had been to colonialism.

He had a point. Two of the six founding members of the EEC – Belgium and France – still held substantial colonial interests on the continent. Accession to the community thus posed the crucial question of what to do about them.

The question became contentious enough to threaten the collapse of the entire Treaty of Rome negotiation process. The other four members of the EEC were Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

France in particular was steadfast that its colonies be “associated” with the community. Paris envisaged that its preferential colonial terms of trade would be extended to the entire EEC. But Germany and the Netherlands were opposed, wary of being forced to share the financial and political responsibilities that came with trading with former colonies.

The French argument ultimately won, albeit with some compromises. The treaty’s association agreement would last five years and the preferences France enjoyed from its colonies would be gradually expanded to the rest of the EEC.

The agreement, inscribed into articles 131-136 of the treaty, served as the originator of Europe’s subsequent relationship with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP). This was codified in the Yaoundé Agreements, the Lomé Convention and today’s Cotonou Agreement.

So this 60th anniversary is not just about Europe. The treaty created a framework for multilateral relations between Europe and Africa.

The principles of trade and aid enshrined in the treaty’s association agreement form the basis of Europe’s development agenda in Africa to this day, even though relations have expanded into many more areas in the 21st century.

A common future

The Treaty of Rome laid out the blueprint for the creation of the world’s largest single market. It also contributed to the post World War II process of cooperation and reconciliation in Europe.

The push for European unity persisted for 37 years, culminating in the creation of the European Union (EU) under the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

Although difficult to imagine amid the doom and gloom of Brexit, rising populism and the migration crisis, there is still reason to celebrate when you consider the region’s relationship with Africa.

The EU, for all of its troubles, has generally been a progressive partner to Africa, especially with respect to the establishment of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy and the unique programming efforts it has generated.

This of course does not negate instances of neocolonialism, nor the damage done by the clumsy promotion of the European Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

The EPAs in particular remain a sore point. Indeed, the preferential trade terms given to African countries by EU member states have been judged discriminatory and in contravention of World Trade Organisation rules.

Beyond the EPA debate, a number of factors have contributed to challenges facing some of the original asymmetries between the two sides.

For one, the global South, and China in particular, continues to alter global trade dynamics. African countries and regional organisations now have more trading partners to turn to.

In addition, Africa is in the middle of constructive upheaval, brought on by more than 20 years of robust growth.

The Africa of today is not the Africa of 1957. The African Union is also a more robust partner than its predecessor, the Organisation of Africa Unity.

Trade and aid

Back in 1957, the Treaty of Rome laid down the twin principles of EU-Africa relations throughout the 20th century and beyond: trade and aid. These principles were framed within the larger idea of development cooperation.

The association agreement provided reciprocal trading arrangements between 31 ‘overseas territories’ – including 18 African ones – and the ECC countries. An overseas development fund was also created, with all six EEC members contributing to it.

Controversially, the agreement served to perpetuate African dependency on Europe. Even the Lome Convention’s much touted “non-reciprocal” principle, which was supposed to nurture African industries, further attached them to Europe.

The convention eventually met strong criticism as a system of “collective clientelism”, which was perpetuating dependency and “elite capture” in Africa.

This contradictory relationship between dependency and progressive thinking has made Africans understandably circumspect.

What next for Europe and Africa?

The twin principles of trade and aid still exist. But the growth of the EU-Africa partnership since 2000 – outside of EU-ACP channels – has broadened the relationship into less traditional areas such as science and technology, higher education, private investment, infrastructure and continental integration.

But Kwame Nkurumah’s 1957 criticism is still being levied at the EU today for its alleged neocolonial promotion of the EPAs. Pundits in East and Central Africa have been vociferous in their opposition to the agreements.

However, EU officials have a dramatically different interpretation. The EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, described the 2016 EPA with six Southern African Development Community (SADC) members as helping to tap the economic potential of the private sector and increase trade.

With such contrasting perceptions, it is perhaps unsurprising that SADC is the only regional body to have signed an EPA with the EU despite more than 10 years of negotiation.

What is crucial is that both sides recognise how far they have come since the Treaty of Rome. And that they accept that a more equitable partnership requires continued commitment to cooperation.

John Kotsopoulos, Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation, University of Pretoria

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.