Humans vs. Robots: Who Should Dominate Space Exploration? By Adam Mann April 11, 2012 | 6:30 am Categories: Space
Image: NASA’s Robonaut 2 squares off with a human astronaut. NASA
The most recent footprints on the moon are 40 years old, and the next artificial mark on the lunar surface will probably be made by a robot’s wheels rather than human soles.
Many space scientists, engineers and politicians argue that this is a good thing. Most astronomers will tell you that virtually anything a human can do on another planet, a robot can do, only cheaper and without the risk of losing a life. But the battle between humans and robots for the starring role in the next chapter of space exploration is not yet settled.
“In what was really only a few days on the lunar surface, the Apollo astronauts produced a tremendous scientific legacy,” said planetary scientist Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College in London, author of a paper in the April issue of Astronomy and Geophysics. “Robotic exploration of the moon and Mars pales in comparison.”
Robots have done all the recent planetary exploration in the solar system. In past decades, rovers, landers, and orbiters have visited the moon, asteroids and comets, every planet in the solar system and many of their moons as well. But how does their work compare to that of human astronauts?
In terms of sheer scientific output, manned exploration of outer space has a good track record. More than 2,000 papers have been published over the last four decades using data collected during the manned Apollo missions, and the rate of new papers is still rising. In comparison, the Soviet robotic Luna explorers and NASA’s Mars Exploration rover program — Mars Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity — have each generated around 400 publications.
Humans hold a number of advantages over robots. They can make quick decisions in response to changing conditions or new discoveries, rather than waiting for time-delayed instructions from Earth. They are more mobile than current robot explorers: The Apollo 17 astronauts covered more than 22 miles in three days, a distance that has taken the Mars Opportunity rover eight years to match. Humans can drill for samples deep underground and deploy large-scale geologic instruments, something that no rover has achieved on another body.
Despite these qualities, many experts are skeptical of Crawford’s argument.
“I strongly disagree with his conclusions,” wrote engineer Adrian Stoica, who supervises the Advanced Robotic Controls group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an email to Wired. He notes that Crawford’s paper seems to focus on cost in terms of scientific output achieved.
The Apollo program was incredibly expensive — about $175 billion in today’s money — though it was not solely a scientific mission. It was mainly a geopolitical stunt during the Cold War to show American technological superiority over Russia, with science piggybacking on the ride.
The total amount spent on science over the Apollo missions, Crawford estimates, comes to about $2.09 billion in today’s dollars, making it comparable to or even cheaper than the recent $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory.
But contrasting manned lunar missions with robotic Mars missions is not the right way to go, wrote Stoica. A better analysis would use the potential cost of a manned Mars mission, which NASA estimates to be at least hundreds of billions of dollars.
Crawford counters that cost is not the biggest impetus behind his analysis. Instead, he wanted to bring attention to the sheer efficiency and legacy that the Apollo program achieved during its short time. If space exploration continues to focus on sending robots to other planets, “we will learn less about the solar system in the next 100 years than we will if we engage in an ambitious program of human exploration,” he said.
Of course, humans and robots each have their own advantages for exploration of outer space.
“There isn’t a battle between robots and humans — that’s comparing apples and oranges,” said James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We send the robots as our pathfinders and scouts, and they open the frontiers so that we can decide where and when to send the people.”
Humans and robots already work together on Earth and in space. There are schemes that offer the advantages of human exploration without incurring as high of a cost.
“What makes robots at a distance inferior to humans is one thing only: latency,” said astronomer Dan Lester of the University of Texas at Austin.
The time it takes for a signal to travel from a robot back to mission control on Earth is a major stumbling block. Commands sent to a Mars rover take between 5 and 15 minutes. Light travel time to the moon is around 2.6 seconds.
“It takes 10 minutes to tie a knot with the Earth-moon latency,” said Lester. “But if we could bring that down to about 100 milliseconds, the robots themselves are very capable.” Teleoperated robots on the surface of another planet would have greater strength, endurance, and precision than human explorers, he added.
Teleoperation has been considered in the past for space exploration. During the Apollo era, the technology was not well developed but in the last decade, it has taken off. On Earth, surgeons in Baltimore now perform operations in Indonesia while officers in Nevada covertly spy on nuclear sites in Iran.
Lester envisions a future where astronauts camp out on Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos and order remote-controlled robots to drive long distances over the planet’s surface, set up geologic instruments, and collect samples for analysis. He estimates this could greatly reduce costs because roughly half the price tag of a manned mission is spent on getting people down and back up the deep gravity well of a planet.
Crawford agrees such a plan would be a step beyond simply sending a robot, though perhaps less efficient than putting people on a planet’s surface.
“I think it will be strange to spend all the money to go all that way and then not land,” he said.
Writer-director Eduardo Sanchez made film history in 1999 as half of the creative team behind the found-footage horror feature that inspired countless imitators, The Blair Witch Project. Since then, Sanchez has continued in horror, but avoided found footage. However, none of his successive movies drew the kind of praise or caused the kind of mass hysteria of his witchy debut, which may explain why Sanchez is heading back into the woods and returning to found footage for his next effort, Exists.
Written by Sanchez's recurring collaborator Jamie Nash (Altered, Lovely Molly), Exists is a horror-thriller that follows a group of friends on a camping trip in the forests of Texas that takes a frightening turn when they discover they are being stalked by the elusive but deadly Bigfoot. With days to go before the picture goes into production at Spiderwood Studios in Elgin, Texas next week, Variety reports the Sanchez has finally cemented his cast.
Dora Madison Burge, Samuel Davis, Roger Edwards, Chris Osborn, Denise Williamson have recently signed on to play the terrorized campers, joining 6'7" character actor Brian Steele (Hell Boy), who has been committed to play the project's monster since last year. For Steele, the role will be a sort of homecoming as he made his screen debut in 1993 playing the titular Sasquatch of the Harry and the Hendersons TV show, a spin-off of the fondly remembered family adventure of the same name. But, Exists will be a change of pace for Steele, as Harry was a Bigfooted vegetarian, not one who preyed on whatever unfortunate nature enthusiast stumbled upon his path. Though with a long list of hulking baddies to his credit—including Predators and a bevvy of Hellboy beasts—he's surely up to the task of tackling such a legendary monster.
Exists is the second film being produced under Haxan Films and Amber Entertainment's multi-picture collaboration deal. The first was notably Sanchez and Nash's Lovely Molly, which snagged spots at the Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW. That horror-thriller that centers on a young newlywed plagued by painful memories upon moving into her late father's home will hit theaters May 18th.
Monitoring the Opposition Siemens Allegedly Sold Surveillance Gear to Syria
German engineering giant Siemens and a spinoff company allegedly sold surveillance technology to the Syrian regime, according to a German television report. The government could be using the equipment to crack down on opposition supporters, human rights activists warn.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is under increasing international pressure to stop the crackdown on the uprising in his country, but reportedly continues to use torture and other brutal methods against rebel forces. Germany is among the nations who have called for an end to the bloodshed there, but a new report has revealed that one of the country's biggest companies apparently sold technology to Syria that could be used to spy on the opposition.
German industrial giant Siemens sold network surveillance technology to the Syrian regime in 2000, public broadcaster ARD reported on Tuesday night. According to their news show "Fakt," a product called the "Monitoring Center" was delivered to Syrian mobile communications company Syriatel. Nokia Siemens Networks confirmed the delivery, they reported.
The corresponding business division at Siemens became the new joint venture Nokia Siemens Networks in 2007. The following year, that company signed a contract with Syrian landline provider STE, a deal that also included the "Monitoring Center." These contracts were then transferred in March 2009 to the Nokia Siemens Networks spin-off company Trovicor, which took over the "Voice and Data Recording" division, ARD reported, citing documents they had obtained.
Opposition Faces Torture
The Munich-based company Trovicor, which belongs to a financial investor today, declined to comment on the issue, "Fakt" reported. But a human rights activist from Amnesty International told the show that the systematic online surveillance by Syrian security forces was likely playing a role in the capture of opposition members, who face torture after their arrest.
Trovicor's website describes the "Trovicor Monitoring Center" as broadly effective and tailor-made to the "complex needs" of international security and law enforcement agencies. "Its usage spans from intercept of communications in fixed and mobile networks to next generation networking and Internet," it says. Furthermore, the system is expandable. "Popular applications are e.g.: location tracking, speaker recognition and language identification and link analysis," the site continues.
Internet freedom activist and Pirate Party member Stephan Urbach criticized the export of surveillance technology from Germany. "We need a broader debate about the ethical responsibility of companies," he said in a statement. "The German government has completely missed this debate, particularly in the wake of revelations about such filtering and surveillance systems." If it becomes unambiguously clear that German companies have delivered surveillance technology to totalitarian states, Berlin must "swiftly correct this failure," he added.
Spy Gear Used in Bahrain Too
Trovicor made the news in August 2011 too, when Bloomberg Markets magazine reported the company had sold monitoring systems to Bahrain, which allegedly used it to crack down on political dissidents. At the time, Trovicor reportedly said that contractual obligations prevented it from revealing where and to whom it had sold the spy technology. The question of whether the same Trovicor technology sold to European Union countries might also have been delivered to authoritarian regimes also went unanswered.
Siemens hasn't been the only company in the world to allegedly provide spy gear to Syria and other brutal regimes, though. Last October, the US firm Blue Coat Systems acknowledged that at least 13 of its web blocking devices -- initially destined for Iraq -- had somehow made their way to Syria, where they were being used in the regime's crackdown.
The United Nations estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began some 13 months ago. In the latest development, Syrian troops have defied a UN cease-fire plan that had been described by special envoy Kofi Annan as the only chance for peace in the country.
Analysis: China scandal risks sapping will for reform
By Don Durfee and Chris Buckley Thu Apr 12, 2012 8:22am EDT
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's most lurid political scandal in years could claim yet another victim - the boldness to grasp difficult reforms needed to ward off mounting risks to growth and stability.
Beijing long ago signaled the need for deeper changes to usher in the next round of growth as the country's polluting, export-led model runs out of steam.
But in recent months, Premier Wen Jiabao and others have warned that China is running out of time to tackle important reforms, including freeing up land ownership and reining in the coddled state-owned sector.
The ouster of ambitious leadership contender Bo Xilai, who wrapped himself in populist rhetoric, could sap China's will to tackle nettlesome problems by discouraging bold ideas from either to the left or the right, especially ahead of a leadership succession from later this year.
Bo was a brash politician who loved the limelight, a rival who needled other leaders to compete in policy innovations, said analysts.
"When Bo Xilai was still a factor, that was provoking rivalry between left and right, and encouraging more reformist impulses so that each camp could show its stance," said Chen Yongmiao, a lawyer and political commentator in Beijing.
Had Bo had been promoted to the top leadership, "reformists might have had to be more forceful precisely in order to counter his influence", said Chen. "But now he's been ousted, their steps could be weaker because the incentive isn't there."
This week, the ruling Chinese Communist Party announced Bo, recently dismissed as the party chief of Chongqing municipality in southwest China, had also been suspended from the Central Committee, a council of senior officials. Bo's wife was named as a suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Until his abrupt downfall, Bo was widely seen as a contender for a spot in the party's next Standing Committee, an inner-circle of decision-making power that now has nine members.
Even before the stunning announcement about Bo, President Hu Jintao had signaled caution in the face of calls to embrace big financial and political reforms that would curtail central power, according to an editor in Beijing with close ties to senior officials.
"Now is not the right time to consider reform in some crucial areas," Hu said recently, according to the editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of policy debates.
Hu did not specify which reforms he meant, but the editor took it to mean that political changes, along with challenges to the grip of the powerful state-owned businesses, were off limits.
Just last week Premier Wen called the country's big banks a monopoly that must be dismantled to get money flowing to cash-starved private firms.
Other changes include reforming land ownership, which could dramatically increase the supply of housing and let out air from the property bubble, opening state-dominated sectors like telecommunications and healthcare to real private competition, and introducing market-based interest rates for banks.
Further delay in such reforms is an alarming prospect for economists who see trouble ahead if some of the most important changes are put off for much longer.
An increasingly urgent chorus of policy-advisers and intellectuals warns that without reforms, economic growth and political stability could be imperiled.
"You can wait until after the leadership transition (in early 2013) but by then you might already have a crisis," said Tao Ran, a professor of economics at Renmin University in Beijing.
THE CASE FOR CHANGE
Pushing through big change in a year of leadership transition was always going to be difficult. Breaking up state monopolies and fiscal reforms could create disruption the party wants to avoid as it tries to engineer a smooth handover of power.
But the leadership rifts uncovered by the Bo Xilai scandal suggest that even after the new leaders take power, it could be hard to achieve the consensus needed to confront vested interests like state-owned enterprises and banks.
"Reform needs an ideological consensus or overriding will from a powerful leader like Deng Xiaoping, and that doesn't exist," said the Beijing editor.
"The system of power prizes stability before all else, and there's no real reform that doesn't affect stability, so there's no real will to take on deeper reforms."
China's past decades of stunning growth have been driven by huge overinvestment in manufacturing, which has produced a glut in production capacity. To ensure a market for all those goods, China has held its currency low, which in turn has brought back a flood of foreign exchange that has stoked inflation and real estate bubbles, among others.
Along the way, a growing state sector has stifled innovation and encouraged misallocation of capital, often funneling it into even more industrial capacity in China's coastal areas.
Shrinking the bubbles and spreading wealth more evenly means spurring domestic consumption and fostering more private sector competition, both of which could boost growth and create jobs, which are priorities for the Communist Party.
"There is still huge room for China to grow if it deregulates land, for instance," said Tao of Renmin University. "With 200 million migrant workers and their families, there are maybe 150 million housing units that need to be built. That's a huge business."
Some reforms are edging ahead.
Last week, Premier Wen announced plans for a pilot project in Wenzhou to encourage small lenders to help private businesses often ignored by the state-owned banks.
And in recent years, the government has expanded the offshore market for trading the yuan, a major step for eventual liberalization of the currency.
But critics say such changes are no substitute for bigger reforms that keep getting pushed back.
"These are issues you can postpone by a few months or year or longer, and that is what has been happening for a long time," said Louis Kuijs, a former World Bank economist now with the Fung Global Institute in Hong Kong.
"But if the measures the government will use to rebalance its economy don't include hard-to-take reforms like levelling the playing field for private enterprise, then you may see that growth comes down a lot."
While few expect glimmers of major change before the leadership handover, there is the chance that the departure of Bo, with his brash ways and Mao Zedong-inspired rhetoric, could actually make it easier the new leaders to muster consensus for reform.
"It will help reform by removing this advocate of policies inspired by Mao," said Wu Jiaxiang, a former central government official in Beijing who writes about politics.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Yao; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Robert Birsel)
There's something mysterious in the sky. Sometimes it's a saucer-shaped object. Sometimes it's a series of lights that change in formation, color and speed. Other times someone steps forward to admit that the mystery is, well, nothing more than a hoax. One thing is certain: the phenomena of UFOs, or unidentified flying objects, will keep many with their eyes (and cameras) fixed on the skies for years to come.
CIA’s Secret Fear: High-Tech Border Checks Will Blow Spies’ Cover By Jeff Stein April 12, 2012 | 5:30 am Categories: Spies, Secrecy and Surveillance
An iris scanner from Senex Technologies on display at the CeBIT trade show. Photo: Fabian Bimmer/AP
When Tom Cruise had to break into police headquarters in Minority Report, the futuristic crime thriller, he got past the iris scanners with ease: He just swapped out his eyeballs.
CIA agents may find that just a little beyond the call of duty. But meanwhile, they’ve got to come up with something else: The increasing deployment of iris scanners and biometric passports at worldwide airports, hotels and business headquarters, designed to catch terrorists and criminals, are playing havoc with operations that require CIA spies to travel under false identities.
Busy spy crossroads such as Dubai, Jordan, India and many E.U. points of entry are employing iris scanners to link eyeballs irrevocably to a particular name. Likewise, the increasing use of biometric passports, which are embedded with microchips containing a person’s face, sex, fingerprints, date and place of birth, and other personal data, are increasingly replacing the old paper ones. For a clandestine field operative, flying under a false name could be a one-way ticket to a headquarters desk, since they’re irrevocably chained to whatever name and passport they used.
“If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can’t go again under another name,” explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. ”So it’s a one-time thing — one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time. You can’t show up again under a different name with the same data.”
The issue is exceedingly sensitive to agency operatives and intelligence officials, past and present. “I think you have finally found a topic I can’t talk about,” said Charles Faddis, a CIA operations officer who retired in 2008.
“I can’t help you with this,” added a former intelligence agency chief. “I do think this is a significant issue with great implications for the safety and security of our people, so I recommend you not publish anything on this. You can do a lot of harm and no good.”
Other former operatives would not even allow their polite refusals to comment to be quoted. The CIA, naturally, refused to comment for this story.
But several intelligence sources speaking on condition of anonymity agreed to discuss the issue with Danger Room, on the grounds that the problem is already well known to foreign spy agencies and terrorist groups, since it effects everyone seeking to operate covertly or illegally across a border.
In “the old days,” as one put it — that would be before 9/11 — deep-cover CIA operatives could use and discard false passports like hand wipes. “The only way immigration could tell if the passports were fake was to look at the stamps, paper, photo, and so on,” said another recently retired CIA operative, whose worked on sensitive projects under non-official cover. Operatives could land at, say, Dubai, with a passport with one false name, then pick up another from the local CIA station to register at the hotel and conduct a mission. Then the same operative could return the country several times under different names, repeating the process.
Biometrics are making that impossible. Even crossing the border with a real identity, then donning a fake one in-country, presents its own risks. “When you go to check into a hotel room for a meeting with an asset, or even rent a car to drive to the meeting — or hold the meeting in the car — many hotels and car rental agencies upload their customer data, including passport number, to immigration every day,” the former spook notes. “Most countries are looking for visa overstays. But when you show up on the list as never having entered the country … it brings the police around to ask questions.”
If the CIA is working in concert with a local intelligence agency, as it commonly does in E.U. countries, Jordan, Thailand and other spots, undercover entries and exits can be smoothed over.
But “unilateral ops” — where the agency is trying to conceal its activities from the host country — “have deteriorated significantly” because of the new technologies, the career spook said.
The agency saw the windows closing, of course: The clamor for new counterterrorism border controls reached high decibels after 9/11. By mid-decade, the E.U. was requiring member states to issue biometric passports and testing iris scanners.
Right away, the new world of border controls loomed as a big headache for the CIA. The ability to travel under false identities is as basic to spy work as motor oil is to engines. The day of the trench-coated, fast-talking spy easily slipping in and out of countries on false papers multiple times was coming to an end.
Often, a CIA operations officer traveling under nonofficial cover (so-called NOCs) can pick up a new set of documents from a CIA courier or dead drop once he or she is in the country. There’s nothing new about that. But since the better hotels require guests to present their passports, which are scanned into the system, that ruse is increasingly rendered moot, especially in hostile climes like Iran, where the interior ministry’s computers are assumed to be hard-wired into the airline passenger and hotel guest lists.
“Not that they couldn’t duplicate the technology or the bonafides of the passports themselves — watermarks, holograms, et cetera…” the retired operative added. “Their biggest worry was getting the [false] passport and travel data into the country’s databases.”
One obvious workaround is for operatives to book one-star hotels where such impediments are less likely. But if they’re traveling undercover as, say, a prosperous Western business executive, booking a room in a seedy joint only raises red flags with the desk clerks and local gendarmes.
So after 9/11, intelligence sources said, CIA ops managers began putting renewed emphasis on recruiting spies in foreign border-control agencies — people with access to the electronic files, who can change, add or eliminate documents.
“Just before I left, they were gearing up to make a request for CIA officers to recruit foreigners with access to immigration databases,” said the retired NOC. “I’m sure that several people made careers out of just this kind of operation, much as some officers did when the NSA suddenly lost millions of access points to intelligence when the world switched from microwave towers to fiber optic lines — whole departments were formed to recruit telephone company assets in foreign countries.”
The challenge isn’t just the CIA’s, of course. Every intelligence agency faces it. The problem is especially acute for Israel’s Mossad.
“That’s right,” says former Mossad operative Michael Ross. “I remember discussions about that in the latter part of my career, just before 9/11. Obviously for Mossad the issue of documents and identity are an ongoing huge, huge project…. You can’t go into Syria, say, or basically anywhere in the Middle East, with an Israeli passport, for obvious reasons, so we have to use other documents.”
Mossad puts its documents through test runs, said Ross, who retired in 2001.
“We get into, say, France, with a document, then change our appearance, then go into Germany and see if they pick up the physical change, to see if the two speak to each other and say, ‘Wait a minute, is this the same guy? Before he had a beard and glasses, and now he’s clean-shaven and wears contacts.’”
“There are some very smart people in Mossad who spend a lot of time and energy ensuring that we can get our people in and out of countries without a document flap,” Ross added.
But something went wrong in a Dubai hotel in January 2010. A Hamas official was assassinated, almost certainly at the hands of Mossad. As it turned out, Israeli operatives, who entered Dubai on forged passports from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Germany, were videotaped in the hotel by its security cameras. The resulting dust-up mystified longtime intelligence observers, who thought Mossad incapable of such sloppy tradecraft. Either Mossad hadn’t locked down its relations with Dubai authorities as tightly as it thought, Ross speculated, or an Iranian mole leaked the surveillance tapes.
For day-in, day-out CIA espionage operations abroad, “biometrics is a problem only if you have the same case officer traveling into the country multiple times with multiple aliases,” said the former NOC. ”The easy fix to that is to break up the workload among several case officers who only travel to that country under one alias.”
Or to meet your spies someplace else, others suggested, where border controls are looser, such as Cyprus.
Or better yet, introducing malware into the computers of foreign immigration and border control services, to change data on demand.
But the electronic curtain is descending all over the world.
Sky Movies Gets U.K. TV Rights to James Bond Catalog 3:31 AM PDT 4/12/2012 by Georg Szalai
The new deal, which will kick in this October, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the franchise.
LONDON - BSkyB's Sky Movies has won the TV rights to the James Bond film catalog, which were so far held by ITV in the U.K., from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The company said that Bond films will become available on Sky Movies starting in October. Financial terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
ITV has shown Bond movies since 1975, with its most recent deal signed a couple of years ago.
"The deal marks the first time the complete catalogue of Bond films will have ever been shown uninterrupted and in high definition in the U.K.," Sky said. "It offers Bond fans an unrivaled opportunity to experience the films via Sky Movies’ comprehensive movies service - on the linear channels, on demand and on the go."
The new pay TV deal coincides with the 50th anniversary of the franchise. The first film in the series, Dr. No, was released on Oct. 5 of 1962.
"We are simply delighted to have secured the Bond films for our customers,” said Ian Lewis, director of Sky Movies. "Everything about these films is iconic - whether it’s the cars, the gadgets or the catchphrases. What’s more, they’ve become hugely significant culturally; demonstrating the best of British film."
Chris Ottinger, president, international television distribution & acquisitions at MGM, said: "It is the first time that the entire Bond collection will be shown side-by-side on one channel, and we are really pleased to be able to showcase all of the British classics on Sky Movies."
Sky Movies review show 35MM will show behind-the-scenes footage and exclusive interviews related to upcoming Bond release Skyfall, which will make it onto the network in spring 2013, the company said.
Exclusive: Iran ships "off radar" as Tehran conceals oil sales
By Christopher Johnson and Peg Mackey Fri Apr 13, 2012 9:28am EDT
LONDON (Reuters) - Iran is concealing the destinations of its oil sales by disabling tracking systems aboard its tanker fleet, making it difficult to assess how much crude Tehran is exporting as it seeks to counter Western sanctions aimed at cutting its oil revenues.
Most of Iran's 39-strong fleet of tankers is now "off-radar" after Tehran ordered captains in the National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC) to switch off the black box transponders that are used in the shipping industry to monitor vessel movements, oil industry, trading and shipping sources said.
"Iran, helped by its customers, is trying to obfuscate as much as possible," said a senior executive at a national oil company that has done business with Iran.
And Iran may have countered a reported reduction in its oil sales in March by offering big discounts in the form of free freight, finance and insurance and generous credit terms, the sources said.
Europe's July 1 oil embargo, and U.S. and European financial sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme have seen Tehran's oil sales drop to most Western destinations and drawn promises from some Asian buyers that they will cut purchases.
But cheap, covert sales may have curbed or even reversed the reduction in shipments, the sources say.
Discretion is paramount.
Ship captains steering NITC supertankers have switched off recognition systems and customers are keeping business strictly under wraps.
"People are being very secretive right now. They are not talking about this on email, Yahoo or mobile," said the head of a crude oil desk at a top oil trading houses.
A Reuters' survey of the Iranian fleet via the ship tracking system AIS Live shows only seven of its 25 very large crude carriers are still operating their on-board transponders, which allow computers to track vessels.
Only two of NITC's nine smaller Suezmax size tankers now have their tracking systems in operation, shipping sources say.
"NITC oil tankers are going to operate in stealth mode," said a shipping official, who declined to be identified.
Under normal circumstances, tankers would generally not turn off their tracking systems. Some did so last year during the Libyan civil war in order to trade with the Gaddafi government.
As sanctions make it harder to pay for and ship oil from Iran, it is increasingly difficult to gauge how much is moving out of the country's main terminal at Kharg Island.
Iran's Oil Minister, Rostam Qasemi, has said Tehran's crude exports are steady at last year's rate of 2.2 million barrels per day. But that has been hard to square with tanker tracker data and market intelligence.
Expert opinion is that Iran's visible crude oil sales fell from 2.2 million barrels a day late last year to about 1.7 million bpd in March.
These calculations are backed by some of the best oil industry forecasters in the business including the International Energy Agency and Geneva-based Petrologistics, the respected tanker tracking consultant which monitors global oil shipments.
The estimates put Iranian exports down by as much as 500,000 bpd.
The trouble is there is no hard evidence that Iran's oil production has actually fallen or that it is going into storage.
Millions of barrels of Iranian oil that were in storage in Iranian tankers a few weeks ago now seem to have disappeared, ship tracking data shows.
So where is it going? Has it been re-routed, has production been shut in or is the oil being stored somewhere else? Is it all being stored at sea?
"It's the million-dollar question - the billion-dollar question even," a senior executive in Asia at a large oil trading house said.
The hunt is getting more complicated as OPEC's second biggest producer comes up with a range of tactics to avoid scrutiny.
"Some big Asian companies may be taking oil on Iranian ships provided they switch off the transponders," said another European shipping industry source.
A trader in Singapore said Iran has managed to sell all the crude stored on half a dozen vessels floating off Singapore earlier in the year. The buyers were mainly Chinese and South Korean.
Given the lack of visibility of NITC's fleet, it will become increasingly difficult to measure floating storage. Industry sources say parts of the fleet were storing up to 12 million barrels of crude in March. That has now disappeared.
An NITC official, contacted by Reuters, declined to comment. NITC have declined to give press interviews for several weeks.
Tehran is about to have greater flexibility in disguising the locations for oil sales. NITC will take delivery of the first of 12 new supertankers to be delivered from China in May.
Iran does not have the capacity by itself to ship all of its exports, either chartering more ships or leaving it to importers to hire their own vessels.
It has long been assumed Iran would sell most of the oil shunned by Europe to China, its long-term strategic and commercial ally. But until now there has been scant proof.
India, however, has been buying oil on Iranian ships on extended credit for several months, industry sources say.
"China and India are our lifters of last resort," said an Iranian oil official, who declined to be identified. "And the sanctions are making the situation very good for them."
The senior oil trading executive agreed: "We think China is taking most of the Iranian overhang and is keeping very quiet."
China's imports in April should climb back to contract volumes of around 560,000 bpd after a cut to half that in the first quarter when Chinese refiner Sinopec reduced purchases to negotiate better prices with the National Iranian Oil Company.
If Iran is using its own ships to deliver oil to customers, paying for the freight charges, that would be worth nearly $5 million per voyage. Traders say Iran is sometimes also covering insurance, increasingly difficult to finance on international markets. Insurance runs to millions of dollars per delivery.
Buyers are also demanding, and often getting, much better credit terms from the National Iranian Oil Co (NIOC) than normal - as long as six months to pay for each cargo of 2 million barrels. That could be worth up to $10 million per shipment.
Put it all together and it amounts to as much as 10 percent of the value of each supertanker.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul; Editing by Richard Mably and Giles Elgood)
Friday the 13th really is unlucky, medics concluded
It has long been held as a unlucky day by the superstitious, but a little-known medical study noticed a dramatic spike in accidents on Friday 13th.
By Matthew Holehouse 11:29AM BST 13 Apr 2012
In the early 1990s, a team of medical researchers at the Mid Downs Health Authority, West Sussex, set out to prove whether people really believe that Friday 13th is unlucky - and whether they are more prone to misfortune on that day.
They analysed reams of official statistical data on road traffic flows, supermarket occupancy rates and accident and emergency hospital admissions. Their results, published in the British Medical Journal under the title "Is Friday the 13th bad for your health", were startling.
They found 1.4 per cent fewer vehicles on the southern section of the M25 bewteen Junctions 7 to 10 on Friday the 13ths between 1990 and 1992 compared to the previous week. The weather was fairly similar each week - meaning, the researchers concluded, at least 1.4 per cent of the population "are sufficiently superstituous to alter their behaviour and refrain from driving on motorways on Friday the 13th".
By contrast, they noted, the number of shoppers at nine Sainsbury's supermarkets rose by 0.9 per cent - suggesting superstition did not extend to a mortal fear of slipping in the frozen good aisle.
But it was the data on emergency admissions that stunned researchers.
Despite fewer cars on the road, the number of motor accidents in the South West Thames region spiked from a total of 45 on the six Friday 6ths between 1989 and 1992, to some 65 accidents on the six Friday 13ths in the period - an increase of 52 per cent.
The researchers noted that the sample was "too small to allow meaningful analysis."
Nonetheless, the team led by Dr TJ Scanlon wrote: "Do drivers on A, B, C and D roads alter their behaviour, and in what way? Is the alteration - for example more wariness - a positive change making them more careful and thus reducing the chance of an accident? If so, Friday the 13th may indeed be a very unlucky day.
"If the change in behaviour reveals itself by increased fear and anxiety, and perhaps a sense of destiny, it may reduce concentration and increase the likelihood of an accident.
"Are people's perceptions and beliefs self-fulfilling - if you believe something strongly enough will it in fact happen to you? While we await the answers to these difficult questions we may just have to accept that Friday the 13th is indeed unlucky for some and it might be safer to stay at home."
Physicists Create First Long-Distance Quantum Link By Jim Heirbaut, ScienceNOW April 12, 2012 | 10:52 am Categories: Tech
Image: Researchers have built the first true quantum link using two widely separate atoms. Many such links combined may one day form a complete quantum network, suitable for exchanging information that is in theory impossible to spy on. (Andreas Neuzner/Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics)
For more than a decade, physicists have been developing quantum mechanical methods to pass secret messages without fear that they could be intercepted. But they still haven’t created a true quantum network — the fully quantum-mechanical analog to an ordinary telecommunications network in which an uncrackable connection can be forged between any two stations or “nodes” in a network. Now, a team of researchers in Germany has built the first true quantum link using two widely separate atoms. A complete network could be constructed by combining many such links, the researchers say.
“These results are a remarkable achievement”, says Andrew Shields, applied physicist and assistant managing director at Toshiba Research Europe Ltd. in Cambridge, U.K., who was not involved in the work. “In the past we have built networks that can communicate quantum information, but convert it into classical form at the network switching points. [The researchers] report preliminary experiments towards forming a network in which the information remains in quantum form.”
Quantum communications schemes generally take advantage of the fact that, according to quantum theory, it’s impossible to measure the condition or “state” of a quantum particle without disturbing the particle. For example, suppose Alice wants to send Bob a secret message. She can do the encrypting in a traditional way, by writing out the message in the form of a long binary number and zippering it together in a certain mathematical way with a “key,” another long stream of random 0s and 1s. Bob can then use the same key to unscramble the message.
But first, Alice must send Bob the key without letting anybody else see it. She can do that if she encodes the key in single particles of light, or photons. Details vary, but schemes generally exploit the fact that an eavesdropper, Eve, cannot measure the individual photons without altering their state in some way that Alice and Bob can detect by comparing notes before Alice encodes and sends her message. Such “quantum key distribution” has already been demonstrated in networks, such as a large six-node network in Vienna in 2008, and various companies offer quantum key distribution devices.
Such schemes suffer a significant limitation, however. Although the key is passed from node to node in a quantum fashion, it must be read out and regenerated at each node in the network, leaving the nodes vulnerable to hacking. So physicists would like to make the nodes of the network themselves fully quantum mechanical—say, by forming them out of individual atoms.
According to quantum mechanics, an atom can have only certain discrete amounts of energy depending on how its innards are gyrating. Bizarrely, an atom can also be in two different energy states—call them 0 and 1—at once, although that uncertain two-states-at-once condition “collapses” into one state or the other as soon as the atom is measured. “Entanglement” takes weirdness to its absurd extreme. Two atoms can be entangled so that both are in an uncertain two-ways-at-once state, but their states are perfectly correlated. For example, if Alice and Bob share a pair of entangled atoms and she measures hers and finds it in the 1 state, then she’ll know that Bob is sure to find his in the 1 state, too, even before he measures it.
Obviously, Alice and Bob can generate a shared random key by simply entangling and measuring their atoms again and again. Crucially, if entanglement can be extended to a third atom held by Charlotte, then Alice and Charlotte can share a key. In that case, if Eve then tries to detect the key by surreptitiously measuring Bob’s atom, she’ll mess up the correlations between Alice’s and Charlotte’s atoms in a way that will reveal her presence, making the truly quantum network unhackable, at least in principle.
But first, physicists must entangle widely separated atoms. Now, Stephan Ritter of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues have done just that, entangling two atoms in separate labs on opposite sides of the street, as they report online today in Nature.
As simple as this may sound, the researchers still needed a complete lab room full of lasers, optical elements, and other equipment for each node. Each atom sat between two highly reflective mirrors 0.5 mm apart, which form an “optical cavity.” By applying an external laser to atom A, Ritter’s team caused a photon emitted by that atom to escape from its cavity and travel through a 60-meter-long optical fiber to the cavity across the street. When the photon was absorbed by atom B, the original quantum information from the first atom was transferred to the second. By starting with just the right state of the first atom, the researchers could entangle the two atoms. According to the researchers, the entanglement could in principle be extended to a third atom, which makes the system scalable to more than two nodes.
“Every experimental step had to be just right to make this work,” says Ritter, who works in the group of Gerhard Rempe. “Take, for example, the optical cavity. All physicists agree that atoms and photons are great stuff for building a quantum network, but in free space they hardly interact. We needed to develop the cavity for that.”
“This is a very important advance,” says Toshiba’s Shields, because it would enable technologists to share quantum keys on networks where the intermediate nodes can’t be trusted and could also lead to more complex multiparty communication protocols based on distributed entanglement. “However,” Shields cautions, “there is still a great deal of work to be done before the technology is practical.” Miniaturization of the components that constitute one node will no doubt be on the researchers’ wish list.
This story provided by ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science.
Julian Assange Lines Up “Notorious Guest” For ‘World Of Tomorrow’ Talk Show Debut By NANCY TARTAGLIONE, International Editor Friday, 13 April 2012 14:18 UK Tags: Julian Assange, Underground, Wikileaks
In January, WikiLeaks announced the launch of a Julian Assange-hosted talk show that would include interviews with “key political players, thinkers and revolutionaries from around the world.” Today, WikiLeaks and RT, Russia’s state-funded multilingual network, said the WikiLeaks’ founder’s show, The World Of Tomorrow, will debut Tuesday, April 17. Ten episodes were originally scheduled to start airing in March with the promise of reaching 600 million viewers. WikiLeaks now says 12 episodes have been completed and will air on RT, as well as online and on “other networks to follow.” Assange, who’s under UK house arrest awaiting a decision on possible extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault, conducted the interviews from the “secret location” where he’s holed up.
The first 26-minute episode will feature “a notorious guest” whose identity is still under wraps. What we do know is that the first guest will be “particularly controversial” and “highly charismatic.” (The hush-hush nature of the show is kind of ironic for an organization known for its whistle-blowing prowess, I’m just sayin’…) Among future interview subjects are dissidents and some people who have never been interviewed on English-language television. Assange told RT he chose to do the show because, “being under house arrest for so long, it’s nice to have an occasional visitor and to learn more about the world. And given that the conversations we were having are quite interesting, why not film them and show other people what was going on.” Assange himself is also the subject of Underground, a TV film shooting this month in his home country of Australia starring Anthony LaPaglia and Rachel Griffiths. HBO and the BBC are also gearing up for their own WikiLeaks movie to be exec produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
Secret Service agents sent home from summit for alleged misconduct
By Meghashyam Mali 04/14/12 06:45 AM ET
Twelve Secret Service agents accompanying President Obama on a trip to Colombia have been relieved of duty and called back to the United States, reports said Saturday.
The agents were recalled after allegations of misconduct involving prostitutes in the coastal city of Cartagena, where Obama is attending the Summit of the Americas, the Washington Post first reported.
"There have been allegations of misconduct made against the Secret Service in Cartagena, Colombia, prior to the president's trip," Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said in a statement, according to reports.
"Because of this, those personnel are being relieved of their assignments, returned to their place of duty, and are being replaced by other Secret Service personnel. The Secret Service takes all allegations of misconduct seriously."
Donovan said the matter had been “turned over to our Office of Professional Responsibility, which serves as the agency's internal affairs component."
The White House directed inquiries into the matter to the Secret Service, media reports said.
While the Secret Service would not comment on the nature of the allegations prompting the recall of the agents, the Washington Post reported that Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the agency was aware of accusations that at least one agent was involved with prostitutes in Colombia.
The Secret Service said a new team of agents was in place to protect the president and that at no time was his security compromised.
Obama's security team has been involved in other embarrassing incidents.
Last August, a Secret Service agent was arrested for drunk driving in Iowa days ahead of a scheduled bus tour there by the president. That agent, Daniel Valencia, was off duty at the time.
President Obama is attending a weekend summit in Cartagena, along with 30 other heads of state from the Western Hemisphere. The world leaders will discuss efforts to boost trade ties and regional security links.
Forecasters say Saturday storms ‘life threatening’
By SEAN MURPHY Last Modified: Apr 14, 2012 12:34AM
OKLAHOMA CITY — In an unusually early and strong warning, national weather forecasters cautioned Friday that conditions are ripe for violent tornadoes to rip through the nation from Texas to Minnesota this weekend.
As states across the middle of the country prepared for the worst, storms were already kicking off in Norman, Okla., where a twister whizzed by the nation’s tornado forecasting headquarters but caused little damage.
It was only the second time in U.S. history that the Storm Prediction Center issued a high-risk warning more than 24 hours in advance, said Russ Schneider, director of the center, which is part of the National Weather Service. The first time was in April 2006, when nearly 100 tornadoes tore across the southeastern U.S., killing a dozen people and damaging more than 1,000 homes in Tennessee.
This weekend’s outbreak could be a “high-end, life threatening event,” the center said.
The strongly worded message came after the National Weather Service announced last month that it would start using terms like “mass devastation,” “unsurvivable” and “catastrophic” in warnings in an effort to get more people to take heed. It said it would test the new warnings in Kansas and Missouri before deciding whether to expand them to other parts of the country.
Friday’s warning, despite the dire language, was not part of that effort but just the most accurate way to describe what was expected, a weather service spokeswoman said.
It’s possible to issue earlier warnings because improvements in storm modeling and technology are letting forecasters predict storms earlier and with greater confidence, said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service. In the past, people often have had only minutes of warning when a siren went off.
“We’re quite sure tomorrow will be a very busy and dangerous day in terms of large tornadoes in parts of the central and southern plains,” Vaccaro said. “The ingredients are coming together.”
The worst weather is expected to develop late Saturday afternoon between Oklahoma City and Salina, Kan., but other areas also could see severe storms with baseball-sized hail and winds of up to 70 mph, forecasters said. The warning issued Friday covers parts of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
The weather service confirmed a tornado touched down about 4 p.m. Friday near the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman, where it is based. Non-essential personnel at the storm center and students were ordered to take shelter, officials said.
Video from television helicopters showed several buildings damaged in the city of about 100,000 about 20 miles south of Oklahoma City, but Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said there were no reports of serious injuries.
“This is just a fraction of what’s to come tomorrow,” Vaccaro warned.
Storms were developing as cold air from the west hit low-level moisture coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. The difference in wind direction and speed was creating instability in the atmosphere that can spawn tornadoes, said Scott Curl, another weather service meteorologist.
Emergency management officials in Kansas and Oklahoma warned residents to stay updated on weather developments and create a plan for where they and their families would go if a tornado developed.
“We know it’s a Saturday and that people are going to be out and about, so stay weather aware,” Cain said. “Have your cell phone on you, keep it charged and make sure you’re checking the weather throughout the day so you don’t get caught off guard.”
People also should put together an emergency preparedness kit that includes a pair of boots, rain gear, flashlight, battery-operated radio, first-aid kit and a few days’ supply of food and water.
“It seems like it’s kind of a big deal this time,” said Monte Evans, a 42-year-old middle school teacher in Wichita, Kan., who said he planned to keep a close eye on the weather and take shelter in his basement with his wife and four children, ages six to 11, if tornadoes hit. “But they always say it’s coming and then ends up somewhere else. You just do the best you can and get ready if it happens.”
Medical officials in Oklahoma warned residents not to seek shelter at hospitals or other public buildings, but rather to stay inside their homes in a basement or interior closet.
During a tornado outbreak last spring, hundreds of residents packed Oklahoma City hospitals seeking shelter from a violent series of twisters that killed seven people in Oklahoma and Kansas.
“We had people actually lining the halls,” said Michael Murphy of the Emergency Medical Services Authority. “Had we experienced a mass casualty incident, it really could have placed a strain on our resources.”
Bidding Reopens Next Week on Controversial Afghan Aircraft Contract Apr. 13, 2012 - 06:01PM By AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force said April 13 it was reopening a contest for a contract to build light attack aircraft for Afghanistan after an embarrassing cancelation of an award to Brazil’s Embraer two months ago.
The Air Force said that a draft request for proposals would be presented April 17 to the companies competing for the job, U.S.-based Hawker Beechcraft Corp. and Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, which is aligned with the American firm Sierra Nevada Corp.
A final decision for the contract will not be made before early 2013, the Air Force said in a statement, with the first planes due to be delivered in the second half of 2014.
The new schedule will mean “a delay of about 15 months” from original plans, before the Air Force called off the award, the statement said.
Embraer and Sierra Nevada were awarded the $355 million contract in December for the 20 AT-29 Super Tucano warplanes but the Air Force called off the deal in February after a legal challenge from rival Hawker Beechcraft Corp.
The Pentagon’s handling of the aircraft contract could have repercussions In Brazil, where the government is holding a lucrative competition for new fighter jets.
A Brazilian government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, has said that the cancellation of the contract with Embraer would “be taken into account” when Brazil decides on a tender for 36 aircraft for the Brazilian Air Force valued between $4 billion and $7 billion.
Brazil is expected to choose between the Rafale, made by French firm Dassault; the F/A-18 Super Hornet, manufactured by U.S. aviation giant Boeing; and Swedish manufacturer Saab’s Gripen jet in the first half of this year.
The AT-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft designed for low-threat environments, is used to conduct advanced flight training, aerial reconnaissance and light air support operations.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said in February the cancelation of the contract for new light attack aircraft for Afghanistan was an “embarrassment” and vowed to quickly renew the contest.