Liu Boming took in the dizzy view. Around him lay the inky vastness of space. Below was the Earth. “Wow,” he said, laughing. “It’s too beautiful out here.” Over the next seven hours Liu and his colleague Tang Hongbo carried out China’s second spacewalk, helped along by a giant robotic arm.
Mission accomplished, the two taikonauts – China’s astronauts – clambered back into their home for the next three months: Beijing’s new space station. The core module of the station, named Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace”, was launched in April. “There will be more spacewalks. The station will keep growing,” Liu said.
Meanwhile, on Mars, a Chinese rover was exploring. Video shows the vehicle trundling over a rocky surface. There is even sound: an eerie mechanical groaning. Since landing in May the Zhurong probe has been busy seeking clues as to whether Mars once supported life. There is no answer yet: so far it has travelled just over 410 metres.
China is only the second country to land and operate a rover on the red planet, after the US. The frantic tempo of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) recent programme is reminiscent of the cold war, when Moscow and Washington were superpower rivals scrambling to put the first man in space and land on the moon.
Half a century on, space has opened up. It is less ideological and a lot more crowded. About 72 countries have space programmes, including India, Brazil, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the UAE. The European Space Agency is active too, while the UK boasts the most private space startups after the US.
Space today is also highly commercial. On Sunday Richard Branson flew to the edge of space and back again in his Virgin Galactic passenger rocket. On Tuesday, Branson’s fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos is due to travel in his own reusable craft, New Shepard, built by the Amazon founder’s company Blue Origin and launched from west Texas.
Non-state actors play an increasingly important role in space exploration. Elon Musk’s SpaceX vehicles have made numerous flights to the International Space Station (ISS), and since last year they have transported people as well as cargo. Later this year Musk is due to send his own all-civilian crew into orbit – though he isn’t going himself.
Even so, space still reflects tensions on Earth. “Astropolitics follows terrapolitics,” says Mark Hilborne, a lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London. Up there anything goes, he adds. “Space governance is a bit fuzzy. Laws are few and very old. They are not written for asteroid mining or for a time when companies dominate.”
The biggest challenge to US space supremacy comes not from Russia – heir to the Soviet Union’s pioneering space programme, which launched the Sputnik satellite and got the first human into space in the form of Yuri Gagarin – but from China.
In 2011 Congress prohibited US scientists from cooperating with Beijing. Its fear: scientific espionage. Taikonauts are banned from visiting the ISS, which has hosted astronauts from 19 countries over the past 20 years. The station’s future beyond 2028 is uncertain. Its operations may yet be extended in the face of increasing Chinese competition.
In its annual threat assessment this April, the office of the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) described China as a “near-peer competitor” pushing for global power. It warns: “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”
The Biden administration suspects Chinese satellitesare being used for non-civilian purposes. The People’s Liberation Army integrates reconnaissance and navigation data in military command and control systems, the DNI says. “Satellites are inherently dual use. It’s not like the difference between an F15 fighter jet and a 737 passenger plane,” Hilborne says.
Once China completes the Tiangong space station next year, it is likely to invite foreign astronauts to take part in missions. One goal: to build new soft-power alliances. Beijing says interest from other countries is enormous. The low Earth orbit station is part of an ambitious development strategy in the heavens rather than on land – a sort of belt and rocket initiative.
According to Alanna Krolikowski, an assistant professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, a “bifurcation” of space exploration is under way. In one emerging camp are states led by China and Russia, many of them authoritarian; in the other are democracies and “like-minded” countries aligned with the US.
Russia has traditionally worked closely with the Americans, even when terrestrial relations were bad. Now it is moving closer to Beijing. In March, China and Russia announced plans to co-build an international lunar research station. The agreement comes at a time when Vladimir Putin’s government has been increasingly isolated and subject to western sanctions. In June, Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping renewed a friendship treaty. Moscow is cosying up to Beijing out of necessity, at a time of rising US-China bipolarity.
These rival geopolitical factions are fighting over a familiar mountainous surface: the moon. In 2019 a Chinese rover landed on its far side – a first. China is now planning a mission to the moon’s south pole, to establish a robotic research station and an eventual lunar base, which would be intermittently crewed.
Nasa, meanwhile, has said it intends to put a woman and a person of colour on the moon by 2024. SpaceX has been hired to develop a lander. The return to the moon – after the last astronaut, commander Eugene Cernan, said goodbye in December 1972 – would be a staging post for the ultimate “giant leap”, Nasa says: sending astronauts to Mars.
Krolikowski is sceptical that China will quickly overtake the US to become the world’s leading spacefaring country. “A lot of what China is doing is a reprisal of what the cold war space programmes did in the 1960s and 1970s,” she said. Beijing’s recent feats of exploration have as much to do with national pride as scientific discovery, she says.
But there is no doubting Beijing’s desire to catch up, she adds. “The Chinese government has established, or has plans for, programmes or missions in every major area, whether it’s Mars missions, building mega constellations of telecommunications satellites, or exploring asteroids. There is no single area of space activity they are not involved in.”
“We see a tightening of the Russia-China relationship,” Krolikowski says. “In the 1950s the Soviet Union provided a wide range of technical assistance to Beijing. Since the 1990s, however, the Russian space establishment has experienced long stretches of underfunding and stagnation. China now presents it with new opportunities.”
Russia is poised to benefit from cost sharing, while China gets deep-rooted Russian technical expertise. At least, that’s the theory. “I’m sceptical this joint space project will materialise anytime soon,” says Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Gabuev says both countries are “techno-nationalist”. Previous agreements to develop helicopters and wide-bodied aircraft saw nothing actually made, he says.
The Kremlin has been a key partner in managing and resupplying the ISS. US astronauts used Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the station, taking off from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, after the Space Shuttle programme was phased out. But this epoch seems to be coming to an end as private companies such as SpaceX take over. “I expect US-Russian relations to get worse,” Gabuev says, adding that Americans “no longer need” Russia’s help.
Moscow’s state corporation for space activities, Roscosmos, has faced accusations of being more interested in politics than space research. Last month the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Roscosmos’s executive director of manned space programmes, former cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, had been fired. His apparent crime: questioning an official decision to shoot a film on the Russian section of the ISS.
The film, Challenge, is about a female surgeon operating on a cosmonaut in space, and has been backed and financed by Roscosmos . It stars Yulia Peresild, who is due to head to space in October with director Klim Shipenko. The launch seems timed to beat Tom Cruise, who is due to shoot his own movie on board the ISS with director Doug Liman.
Krikalev, who spent more than 800 days in space and was in orbit when the USSR collapsed, apparently told Roscomos’s chief, Dmitry Rogozin, that the film was pointless. Rogozin – its co-producer – has called on the west to drop sanctions in return for Russia’s cooperation on space projects. Putin, Rogozin’s boss, appears to not be very interested in other planets, though, and is more concerned with nature and the climate crisis these days.
“Space is one of the areas that has traditionally transcended politics. The Mir space station worked at a time of east-west tensions. There was symbolic cooperation. Whether this will continue in the future is really up for debate,” Hilborne says. “The US is very sensitive about what happens in space.”
Most observers think the US will remain the world’s pre-eminent space power, thanks to its innovative and flourishing private sector. China’s Soviet-style state programme appears less nimble. Despite ambitious timetables, and billions spent by Beijing, it is unclear when – or even if – an astronaut will return to the moon. The 2030s, perhaps? Will they be American or Chinese? Or from a third country?
It may well be that the first person to boldly go again doesn’t merely represent a nation or carry a flag. More likely, they will emerge from a lunar lander wearing a spacesuit with a SpaceX logo on the back – a giant leap not only for mankind, but for galactic marketing.
In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn’t pay a $20 million ransom.
Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government’s computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti’s leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.
Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that “We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency.”
Experts who spoke to the AP said they doubt actual regime change is likely, or the goal; Emsisoft analyst Brett Callow told the newswire that the threats are simply noise, and not to be taken seriously.
Callow may be right: News unfolding late this week suggests that Conti has gone offline, and may be breaking into several subsidiary groups. Its political ambitions in Costa Rica may just be a distraction, albeit one that could also turn a tidy profit.
NSA: Trust us, no post-quantum encryption backdoors
The NSA wants to ease everyone’s concerns now: Even though it’s been involved in the US government’s post-quantum encryption research, the spy agency won’t have a backdoor.
Speaking to Bloomberg while discussing the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s post-quantum encryption competition, NSA Director of Cybersecurity (and Christmas-tree hacker) Rob Joyce said the new standards being developed are so strong that “there are no backdoors.”
That would be a departure from previous encryption standards, which the NSA is believed to have had ready access to – until foreign spies acquired a copy of the backdoor software for their own use. The Biden administration recently announced additional funding for post-quantum encryption research, which aims to develop a form of protecting sensitive data so secure that even a quantum computer couldn’t crack it.
The US has been actively working to develop encryption standards able to stand up to quantum computers for some time; Joyce claimed to Bloomberg that the NSA has had its own post-quantum encryption algorithms for several years, but those aren’t part of the NIST competition or available to the public.
Despite spending tens of millions to address the security problems posed by quantum computers, the NSA also readily admits that it has no idea when, or even if, quantum computers able to crack modern public key cryptography will be realized.
Frustrated IT admin gets seven years for deleting company databases
A former database administrator from China who wiped out his employer’s financial records has been sentenced to seven years in prison as a result.
Han Bing, who managed databases for Chinese real estate brokerage Lianjia, allegedly used his administrator access and root privileges to log in to two of Lianjia’s database servers, and two application servers, where he wiped financial data and related applications that took the company’s entire finance system offline, said Chinese news sources.
Bing was reportedly disgruntled with his employer. He repeatedly warned them of security flaws in Lianjia’s finance system but felt ignored and undervalued, Lianjia’s ethics chief testified in court. Bing’s actions directly cost the company around $27,000 to recover data and rebuilt systems, but that doesn’t include the impact of lost business.
Bing was caught when Lianjia questioned everyone with access to the financial systems who had permissions to do what Bing did, of whom there were only five. The company claims that Bing acted suspiciously when asked to present his laptop for inspection, refusing to provide his password and claiming privacy privileges.
The company said it suspected none of the laptops would show traces of the attack, but wanted to see how those it questioned would react. Investigators were later able to recover logs that pointed to Bing’s laptop’s IP and MAC addresses, and crosschecking logs against security footage put Bing in the right place at the right time to be the guilty party.
Apple patches a whopping 98 separate vulnerabilities
Apple has had a busy week: In a series of security updates released Monday and Wednesday, the iMaker patched 98 separate vulnerabilities out of its various software platforms.
The updates in question cover most every bit of software Apple makes: WatchOS, iOS and iPad OS, macOS Monterey, Big Sur and Catalina, Xcode, tvOS, Safari and iTunes for Windows were all included. Most of the vulnerabilities are from the past few months, but one common vulnerability and exposure (CVE) number covered by the updates dates back to 2015.
A few of the vulnerabilities covered by this week’s glut of Apple patches were rolled out previously for one system, but not others, as was the case with CVE-2022-22674 and -22675, which were patched in macOS Monterey, but not older versions, in April. Those vulnerabilities were reportedly being actively exploited at the time.
Malicious applications executing arbitrary code with kernel privileges appears to be the most common type of hole being closed in this round of patches, though some do stand out, like Apple Watch bugs that could let apps capture the screen and bypass signature validation.
On iOS, vulnerabilities patched include websites being able to track users in Safari private browsing mode, while macOS users are being protected against apps being able to bypass Privacy preferences and access restricted portions of the filesystem.
Russian-backing Chaos ransomware variant is pure destruction
Cybersecurity firm Fortinet has discovered a variant of the Chaos ransomware that professes support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but appears to have no decryption key to rescue victims in Putin’s regime.
The variant appears to have been compiled with Chaos’ GUI customization tool as recently as May 16, Fortinet said. The researchers said they’re unsure how the Chaos variant infects its victims, and said the variant doesn’t act any differently than typical Chaos ransomware.
Like other forms of Chaos, it enumerates files on infected systems, and irrevocably damages any larger than around 2MB by filling it with random bytes. Anything smaller is encrypted, but recoverable with a key. Chaos also typically attacks commonly used directories like Desktop, Contacts, Downloads and Pictures, which are encrypted entirely.
Here’s where this Chaos variant differs: It’s overtly political, and instead of offering contact info and a ransom demand, the malware simply says “Stop Ukraine War! F**k Zelensky! Dont [sic] go die for f**king clown,” along with a pair of links to sites claiming to belong to the Information Coordination Center, but offering no information otherwise. Files are also encrypted with a “f**kazov” extension, likely referring to the Ukrainian Azov Battalion.
Fortinet said that this Chaos variant appears unique in the sense it appears designed to be file-destroying malware. “This particular variant provides no such avenue as the attacker has no intent on providing a decryption tool … clearly, the motive behind this malware is destruction,” Fortinet said.
The FortiGuard team behind the research warns that with its GUI, Chaos ransomware has become a commodity product, and it expects additional attacks of this variety to emerge. ®
The team said their research could help improve treatment options for advanced uveal melanoma, which currently has a poor survival rate.
An international team of researchers led by University College Dublin (UCD) have uncovered a potential treatment for a type of cancer that effects the eye.
The researchers looked at uveal melanoma (UM), the most common form of eye cancer which is diagnosed in 50 to 60 people in Ireland each year. The team explained that UM begins in the middle layer of the eye, but if it spreads to the liver and other parts of the body, patients have a poor survival prognosis.
In their study, the team aimed to uncover treatment options for the advanced stage of this eye cancer, as it becomes very difficult to treat once it has spread.
The researchers focused on a drug called ACY-1215, which is currently in clinical trials for other solid tumours and blood cancers. This drug belongs to a relatively new group of anticancer drugs called histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACi).
“We wanted to understand how ACY-1215 works to prevent tumour cell growth and spread, in the context of UM,” said postdoctoral researcher Dr Husvinee Sundaramurthi.
Histones are proteins that provide structural support for DNA in cells, allowing DNA to be tightly packaged together. The researchers said these proteins act like a spool that a thread of DNA can wrap itself around.
In the study, the team used the drug ACY-1215 to interfere with the histones in advanced UM cells, to stop the processes involved in their survival and growth.
“We uncovered the particular molecules that may be involved in the anticancer effects the drug ACY-1215 has in advanced UM cells,” said study lead Prof Breandan Kennedy.
“This study will pave the way to look more closely at the benefits of using HDACi, specifically ACY-1215, as a suitable treatment option for advanced UM.”
Kennedy said that by understanding the therapeutic potential of the small molecules involved in the anticancer effects, researchers can improve UM patient care and create personalised treatment strategies.
The international research team involved groups from Spain, Sweden and Ireland. Funding was provided through grants from the Irish Research Council, in collaboration with Breakthrough Cancer Research, UCD’s TopMed10, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions CoFund Programme and Horizon 2020.
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To its evangelists, bitcoin is a frictionless, empowering form of money that liberates citizens of the world from the shackles of banks and national governments. To sceptics, the cryptocurrency is a tool of kleptocrats and gangsters, environmentally monstrous in its consumption of energy, a digitally glamorised Ponzi scheme whose eventual crash will most hurt those least able to afford a loss.
Confidence may or may not have been enhanced by the unveiling, by President Nayib Bukele, of images of a proposed bitcoin-shaped Bitcoin City in El Salvador, funded with a bitcoin bond, the currency’s logo embedded in the central plaza, a metropolis powered with geothermal energy from a nearby volcano. Bukele, the self-styled “coolest dictator in the world”, a former publicist who wears baseball caps back to front, has already made El Salvador the first country to adopt bitcoin as the official currency. “The plan is simple,” he said. “As the world falls into tyranny, we’ll create a haven for freedom.”
Leaving aside the worrisome Pompeii vibe of the city’s location, some shine has come off the president’s vision with the news that the country’s investments in cryptocurrency have lost 45% of their value, that it scores CCC with the credit rating agency Fitch, and that the perceived risk of its bonds is up there with that of war-torn Ukraine. And Bukele’s talk of freedom doesn’t sit well with Amnesty International’s claim that his recent state of emergency has created “a perfect storm of human rights violations”.
But why worry about any of this when you have shiny computer-generated images of a fantasy city to distract you?
Unsecured credit line
The use of constructional bluster by populist leaders – Trump’s wall, for example – is not in itself anything new. See also the island airport, garden bridge, Irish Sea bridge, 40 new hospitals and 300,000 homes a year promised but not delivered by Boris Johnson, and the nuclear power stations he has implausibly pledged to build at a rate of one a year.
Last week his fondness for Potemkin infrastructure took a new twist. Rather than over-promise illusory schemes and under-deliver them, he decided to take credit for something actually built, the £19bn Elizabeth line in London, formerly known as Crossrail, whose central section opens to the public on Tuesday. “We get the big things done,” he boasted to the House of Commons, choosing to ignore the fact that the line was initiated under a Labour prime minister and a Labour mayor of London. He almost makes Nayib Bukele look credible.
Behind the red wall
If you want a light-hearted night out – a date, a birthday treat – then TheHouse of Shades, a new play by Beth Steel, might not, unless you are an unusual person, be for you. It is a cross between Greek tragedy and what was once called kitchen sink drama, a story of ever-mounting misery set in a Nottinghamshire town from 1965 to 2019. It covers the collapse of manufacturing, the rise of Thatcherism, the promises of New Labour and the disillusionment that led to “red wall” seats voting Conservative in 2019.
It features illegal abortion, graphically portrayed, and the effects of inflation, both newly significant. All presented at the Almeida theatre in the famously metropolitan London borough of Islington, not far from the former restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did the 1994 deal that shaped some of the events in the play. There’s irony here to make this audience squirm. Which, along with several other not-comfortable emotions, is probably the desired effect.