Jerusalem mayor re-elected in blow to ex-Foreign Minister Lieberman


More “fun” in the Middle East… Just think how much the Palestinians must like the fact that the mayor of Jerusalem, a Jew (what else) was re-elected. Politics and religion; a deadly combination. TGO

Refer to story below. Source: Reuters

Reuters

By Jeffrey Heller

Jew

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli mayor of Jerusalem won re-election on Wednesday in a hotly contested race that dealt a political blow to his challenger’s main backers, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Lieberman, a legislator whose far-right Yisrael Beitenu party is allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, is embroiled in a corruption case, with a court verdict next month likely to determine whether he returns to the cabinet.

The Jerusalem race, in which his mayoral candidate, Moshe Lion, failed to unseat incumbent Nir Barkat, had been an opportunity for Lieberman to flex some political muscle.

But in a snub to Lieberman, Netanyahu did not endorse Lion -and flew to Italy on Tuesday for talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after casting his ballot in Jerusalem.

Lion, a former aide to Netanyahu, took 45 percent of the vote to Barakat’s 51 percent.

Palestinians, who form about a third of Jerusalem’s 750,000 people, usually boycott the mayoral race in protest at Israel’s control of the eastern part of the city captured in a 1967 war.

For Shas, the contest was a chance to demonstrate its electoral power and show it could induce a large bloc of ultra-Orthodox voters to rally behind Lion, its favored candidate.

Once a maker and breaker of coalition governments, Shas was not invited to join the one Netanyahu formed after a national election in January, handicapping its ability to channel public resources to its educational and social welfare institutions.

The party, which draws its supporters from Israel’s working class Sephardic community of Jews of Middle Eastern origin, has been in flux since the death two weeks ago of its spiritual head, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX VOTES

Shas’s main political leader, Arye Deri, joined Lieberman in backing Lion, but failed to win support from ultra-Orthodox rabbis representing Ashkenazim, or Jews of European descent.

Barkat, 54, called the election “one of the most complicated and difficult races” he had seen, but thanked voters he said “gave us a mandate to lead the city with the same vision for the next five years”.

A former high-tech tycoon, Barkat was first elected mayor in 2008 when he defeated an ultra-Orthodox leader in a contest that turned mostly on the city’s sharp religious-secular divide. This time he won votes from secular and religious Israelis alike.

Though a political independent, Barkat championed Jewish settlement building in east Jerusalem in his first term, supporting Netanyahu’s policies, yet was seen as more pragmatic than his opponent.

The Jerusalem contest was seen as the most strategic of nearly 200 local government elections held across Israel.

In Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial centre, Mayor Ron Huldai was the predicted winner of a fourth term of office, easily defeating Nitzan Horowitz, a dovish lawmaker who would have been the first gay mayor in the Middle East.

(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan)

Picture of the Day


Beautiful cleavage. TGO

Denise Milani 10.23.2013

Libya: Militias, politicians meld in explosive mix


Muslims; what a mess these people are… Is there a sane one among them? They have more militant splinter groups than grains of sand in the Sahara. TGO

Refer to story below. Source: Associated Press

Associated Press

By MAGGIE MICHAEL

Muslim

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libya marks two years since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, but instead of the freedom and development Libyans had hoped for, the country has fallen deeper into anarchy. Rival Islamist and Western-backed factions are melding with the country’s dizzying array of militias, turning political feuds into armed conflict.

Militias that include Islamic extremists are lining up with Islamist politicians in parliament, who have been trying to remove Western-backed Prime Minister Ali Zidan and bring stricter Islamic rule. Other armed groups support Zidan’s non-Islamist allies. The result is a fractured system where political rivalries have the potential to erupt into civil war.

In recent months, the militia chaos has only escalated.

Zidan was briefly kidnapped by militiamen this month. Over the summer, eastern militias seized control of oil exporting terminals, sending production plunging from 1.4 million barrels a day to around 600,000, robbing the country of its main revenue source. Other militias in the south cut off water supplies to the capital for days.

Zidan’s office manager, the defense minister’s son and several judges have been kidnapped. Activists and clerics who speak out against militias have been gunned down, as have at least 100 security or military officers.

At the same time, al-Qaida-inspired militias are spreading. The group Ansar al-Shariah, which is believed to be behind last year’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans, is increasing its strength not only in Benghazi, but in cities further west like Sirte and Ajdabiya.

“We are not a state by the normal definition of the word,” Zidan acknowledged to reporters in Tripoli on Sunday. “The government is rowing against the current, and this is very hard.”

Since Gadhafi’s fall, hundreds of militias have run rampant. They originated in the rebel bands that fought against the longtime dictator in the 8-month war that toppled him. Originally locally based, drawing their loyalties from a particular city, neighborhood or tribe, they have since mushroomed in size.

Too weak to disarm the militias, the military, police and government have tried to co-opt them, paying them to play security roles like guarding districts, facilities, even polling stations during elections. But the policy has backfired, empowering the militias without controlling them.

“This is a disaster,” said Husni Bey, a prominent businessman. Investors are fleeing the country, he said, blaming the government for “stuffing the mouths of militias.”

The tight interweaving of militias and politics has escalated since Libya held its first post-Gadhafi elections just over a year ago. A non-Islamist bloc won a plurality in parliament, a defeat for hard-liners who have ridden elections to power in other Arab countries since the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.

Since the election, the democratic transition has gone nowhere. Efforts by parliament to create a body to draw up a new constitution have foundered. The non-Islamist bloc in parliament has fragmented and Islamist lawmakers have grown more aggressive in trying to unseat Zidan — even as both sides collect militia allies.

“In Libya now, there is an armed wing for each politician,” said Abdel-Hakim al-Balazi, spokesman for the Anti-Crime Department, a militia umbrella group that includes Islamic radicals. Al-Balazi himself has been accused by Zidan of involvement in his abduction and was placed at one point under house arrest.

“I am afraid that if there is no wisdom, the war will be unstoppable,” al-Balazi said.

Nothing illustrates the mingling of militias and politics better than Zidan’s Oct. 10 abduction, following a U.S. special forces raid that snatched an al-Qaida suspect from Tripoli, enflaming divisions between Islamists and Zidan, who was accused of allowing the operation.

Dozens of gunmen swarmed into the Tripoli hotel where Zidan lives and dragged him off to a detention facility for seven hours until he was rescued by other militias. Zidan has depicted the abduction as the work of his Islamist opponents in parliament, accusing two ultraconservative lawmakers of plotting it. The two denied any role.

The group implicated in the abduction is the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, a collection of militias headed by hard-line Islamist commanders — and tied closely to Islamists in parliament. It was created by parliament president Nouri Abu Sahmein, an ultraconservative, and given the official task of keeping security in Tripoli.

A day before Zidan’s abduction, a leader was appointed for the Operations Room — Shabaan Massoud Hadiya, a jihadi preacher who lived in Yemen for years until returning home in 2011 to join the fight against Gadhafi.

The drama illustrates the dangerous geographical dimension of Libya’s factionalism.

The militias of Benghazi, Misrata and Zawiya, Libya’s second-, third- and fifth-largest cities, back the Islamist parliament bloc. Hadiya and many members of the Operations Room hail from Zawiya.

They are counterbalanced by powerful local militias backing Zidan’s camp. The most prominent are the al-Qaqaa and Saaqa militias, with commanders from the western mountain region of Zintan; others hail from neighborhoods of Tripoli.

The Saaqa and Tripoli militias converged on the building where Zidan was being held, forcing his release. Other militiamen were on standby, ready to drive to the capital to fight for his release if need be, said Hashim Bishr, commander of the Supreme Security Committee, another umbrella group of militias.

Zidan’s quick release shows the rival lineups of militias have kept a balance of terror that has prevented the political situation from exploding.

Wary of sparking an outright confrontation, Zidan has blamed members of the Operations Room and the Anti-Crime Department for abducting him but has underlined that parliament president Abu Sahmein — the Operations Room’s top commander — was not involved.

There are signs of an emerging coalition against Zidan made up of Islamist militia commanders, former jihadi fighters and politicians.

In parliament, the main anti-Zidan force is a grouping of Islamist lawmakers known as the “Loyalty to the Martyrs” bloc that includes Abu Sahmein, as well as Abdel-Wahhab al-Qaid, the brother of senior al-Qaida figure Abu-Yahia al-Libi, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in 2012. The two lawmakers Zidan accused of plotting his kidnapping also belong to it.

The bloc works closely with lawmakers from the Muslim Brotherhood, together making up about half of the 200-member parliament. So far, that is not enough to vote out Zidan. Days before Zidan’s abduction, lawmakers tried but failed to pass a no-confidence motion against him.

On the ground, Islamist-leaning militias have also been pressing for Zidan’s removal.

Last summer, a group of militias known as the Supreme Council of Libya’s Revolutionaries besieged government ministries and parliament with pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns demanding Zidan’s resignation and the passage of sweeping legislation that would ban a broad swath of Gadhafi-era officials from politics.

The law was passed at gunpoint, forcing a number of non-Islamist lawmakers out of parliament, as well as the then-president, Mohammed el-Megarif. He was replaced by Abu Sahmein, who then repackaged the militias of the Supreme Council of Libya’s Revolutionaries into the Revolutionaries’ Operation Room under Hadiya.

“Libya now is passing through a complete defragmentation on the political and security level,” said Hassan al-Amin, a leading rights advocate who fled abroad after receiving death threats for speaking against the militias. “The thing is, there is not a single force on the ground that can deal the decisive blow.”

Al-Amin, like others in Libya, says he’s even open to a new NATO intervention involving airstrikes against militias — “before we lose our country.”

Kurdish rebels threaten new fight in Turkey as Syria clashes intensify


Everywhere one turns there is a clash among Muslims. There must be hundreds of Islamic groups throughout the world who totally despise each other and can’t wait to kill the enemy. Such is the make-up of members of that piss-ful faith. TGO

Refer to story below. Source: Reuters

Reuters By Isabel Coles 

Soldiers

QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq (Reuters) – Kurdish rebels are ready to re-enter Turkey from northern Iraq, the head of the group’s political wing said at his mountain hideout, threatening to rekindle an insurgency unless Ankara resuscitates their peace process soon.

Accusing Turkey of waging a proxy war against Kurds in Syria by backing Islamist rebels fighting them in the north, Cemil Bayik, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) told Reuters the group had the right to retaliate.

Syria’s civil war has complicated Turkey’s efforts to make peace with Kurdish militants, but Ankara strongly denies backing any rebel faction against Kurds in Syria and has held regular talks with the head of a Syrian Kurdish group close to the PKK.

Bayik, the group’s most senior figure at liberty, spoke at a small, heavily guarded house in the Qandil Mountain range in Iraq’s Kurdish north, a badge featuring jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan pinned to a pocket on his guerilla uniform.

Imprisoned on an island south of Istanbul, Ocalan commands unswerving loyalty from a fervent cadre of guerillas – both men and women – who live in the mountains that straddle the borders between Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Ocalan began talks with Turkish officials last year to halt a conflict that has left more than 40,000 people dead over the past three decades and earned the PKK a place on a list of terrorist organizations as designated by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

In March, a ceasefire was called and Ocalan ordered his guerillas to retreat from Turkey to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, but the withdrawal was suspended last month as the rebels said Ankara had not held up its side of the bargain.

“The process has come to an end,” Bayik said in the interview, which took place on Saturday. “Either they accept deep and meaningful negotiations with the Kurdish movement, or there will be a civil war in Turkey”.

As prerequisites, Turkey must improve the conditions in which Ocalan is being held and deal with him on equal terms, guarantee amendments to the constitution and enlist a third party to oversee any further steps in the process, he said.

“Now we are preparing ourselves to send the withdrawn groups back to North Kurdistan if the government does not accept our conditions,” said Bayik, who shares his position with a female militant. He said the direction of the process would become clear “in the coming days”.

North Kurdistan is the term Kurds use to refer to the area of Turkey they lay claim to as part of a larger homeland that also takes in tracts of Iran, Iraq and Syria, referred to as East, South and West Kurdistan respectively.

“POLITICS IN PRISON”

The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of carving out a separate state in the southeast for the country’s Kurds, which make up around 20 percent of the population but have long been denied basic political and cultural rights.

Ocalan has since changed his views on violence and statehood, and now seeks devolution of power to Kurds within each of the four countries where they are divided, with an overarching confederation to unite them across the borders.

Negotiations with the PKK were unthinkable until only a few years ago and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has staked considerable political capital in peace efforts, widening cultural and language rights for Kurds at the risk of infuriating large parts of his grass roots support base.

The effort to negotiate with Ocalan is seen as Turkey’s best chance at ending a conflict that has blighted its human rights record, held back its European Union candidacy and undermined economic growth.

For the rebels, it holds out hope of concessions in a struggle with no clear military victor for nearly 30 years.

But the process, which had already lost some momentum, was thrown further into doubt earlier this month when Turkey unveiled a package of reforms Bayik described as “empty”.

“That package has nothing to do with democracy,” he said, accusing Erdogan of giving false hope. “There is no change in the mentality.”

The reforms – which the government says are part of a broader “democratization” drive and not just aimed at solving the Kurdish issue – include proposals to change a vote threshold that kept Kurdish parties out of parliament in the past, and allow for privately funded Kurdish-language education.

But they stopped short of constitutional guarantees for Kurdish identity and culture, greater autonomy and native-language education, and did not touch anti-terror laws that have put thousands of political prisoners behind bars, Bayik said.

“We silenced our weapons so that politics could speak, but now we see that politics is in prison”.

“BANDIT GROUPS”

Seated in a carpeted living room with two starred PKK flags behind him, Bayik said whilst his side had abided by the ceasefire, Turkey had simply moved the frontline in its fight against Kurds to Syria, where civil war has raged for more than two years.

The PKK accuses Ankara and influential Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen of recruiting and training Islamist “bandit groups” to fight Kurds in Syria on their behalf.

“At a time when the Turkish government is helping the bandit groups and is waging a war on the people of West Kurdistan… it is the right of the Kurdish people to bring the fight to Turkey,” Bayik said, referring to the northeastern corner of Syria, where a Kurdish group aligned with the PKK is in control.

Ankara denies arming the rebels or facilitating the passage of foreign fighters who have gone to join al Qaeda-affiliated factions in Syria, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the Nusra front.

Asked whether the PKK had sent guerillas to reinforce the ranks of fellow Kurds in Syria, or would consider doing so in future, Bayik said they did not need help.

“We don’t want to send them to West Kurdistan,” he said. “If the Turkish government wants to insist on fighting, North Kurdistan is the field of war”.

However he admitted some Kurds from Syria who had previously fought with the PKK in Turkey had returned home of their own volition, and that young Kurds in Turkey increasingly felt compelled to go to Syria and fight there.

“This is a very dangerous development”.

On the road twisting steeply up into the Qandil mountains, PKK fighters with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders wave trucks and cars through checkpoints that demarcate their territory from the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The rebel-controlled enclave sits uneasily within Iraqi Kurdistan, a quasi-state rich in hydrocarbons which has recently cultivated close ties with energy-hungry Turkey.

Bayik said in principle the PKK had nothing against Iraqi Kurdistan developing good relations with Ankara, as long as they were based on “equality, freedom and democracy”.

“Relations based on oil and gas and economy: we don’t find such relations right, and they don’t serve a solution to the Kurdish question,” Bayik said.

“Turkey used to fight with South Kurdistan… on the field, but now they want to win the war from inside the castle”.

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Istanbul; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Picture of the Day


Lovely… TGO

Denise Milani 10.22.2013

Female suicide bomber attacks Russian bus, kills six


Wonderful, now the f*cked-up, indoctrinated Muslim slaves (women) are getting into the act. Islam really and truly is a cancer. Too bad that politicians and world leaders don’t have the testicles to call it like it is. TGO

Refer to story below. Source: Reuters

Reuters

By Alissa de Carbonnel

Bus

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A female suicide bomber attacked a bus in southern Russia on Monday, authorities said, killing at least six people in the deadliest such blast outside the volatile North Caucasus region in nearly three years.

The bombing in Volgograd was likely to raise fears of further attacks by Islamist militants as Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in February in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, not far from the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

The attack, which investigators blamed on a 30-year-old woman from Dagestan – the North Caucasus province at the center of an insurgency – also wounded 28 people, of whom eight were in critical condition, the federal Investigative Committee said.

State television showed footage, taken from a camera mounted on a driver’s dashboard, of an explosion ripping through the bus as it travelled along a tree-lined road, sending shards of metal and glass flying.

Passengers scrambled out of doors and windows as the bus came to a stop engulfed in a cloud of smoke.

“There was a blast – a bang – all the glass flew out of the windows,” an eyewitness named Ivan, who had been driving behind the bus, told state-run Rossiya-24 television.

“The cloud of smoke quickly dissipated and then I saw people start to fall out and run out to escape the bus,” he said. “It was a horrible sight.”

Authorities named the suspect as Naida Asiyalova, 30, and state TV showed a passport picture of her in a black chador.

“This woman, in a hijab, got on the bus at one of the stops and the explosion occurred almost immediately afterwards,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said.

“BLACK WIDOWS”

A law enforcement source in Dagestan told Reuters that she had been the wife of Dmitry Sokolov, a man from the Moscow suburbs who joined an insurgent group in Dagestan last year.

The two met online, the police source said. Asiyalova then moved to Moscow to marry Sokolov, 20, ten years her junior. In July 2012, his parents put out a missing persons alert for him when he failed to come home from Arabic classes.

The source described Sokolov as an explosives expert, who is thought to have prepared a suicide belt used by a woman who blew herself up near federal police headquarters in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala in May, killing two people.

“By all appearances, he prepared Naida Asiyalova for her suicide bombing,” the police source said.

Vladimir, a man who said his daughter survived the bombing, said many students were on the bus. “The blast was big, it was huge,” he told Ekho Moskvy radio. “When I came to pick her up, half the bus was simply not there. It was scary. Very scary.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Volgograd is a city of around 1 million people that lies 900 km (560 miles) southeast of Moscow and a few hundred kilometers north of the North Caucasus and Sochi, at the western end of the Caucasus range, where Russia will hold the Winter Olympics.

President Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation on the Games and ordered authorities to boost security in the North Caucasus, where the insurgency is rooted in two post-Soviet wars pitting Chechen separatists against the Kremlin.

Putin’s spokesman conveyed his condolences to the wounded and relatives of the dead, but Putin made no public comment.

Insurgents who say they are fighting to create an Islamic state have claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 37 people at a Moscow airport in 2011 and twin suicide bombings that killed 40 people on the Moscow subway in 2010.

The latter attack was carried out female suicide bombers, dubbed “black widows” in Russia because their male relatives have often been killed by security forces.

In 2002, Chechen women wearing black chadors and suicide belts also took part in a three-day Moscow theatre hostage siege in which around 130 people were killed.

(Additional reporting by Ludmila Danilova and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; editing by Mike Collett-White)

Gun-Toting Robots May Fight Alongside Soldiers in Future Battles


Is the movie Terminators (or the like) a century away in real life? Maybe, just maybe… Imagine sending robots to combat, and not having to deal with injuries and death to young adults. What would be even better than that would be the elimination of war, unfortunately that day will probably never come. TGO

Refer to story below. Source: LiveScience

LiveScience.com

  By Denise Chow, Staff Writer 

Robot

American soldiers may soon be joined on the battlefield by machine gun-toting robots on wheels, according to U.S. Army officials.

Earlier this month, military leaders attended a technology demonstration at Fort Benning, Ga., where robotics companies exhibited their most advanced weaponized creations, reported ComputerWorld.com. The display was designed to show the potential ways robots could support troops in combat.

Army leaders watched a human controller command a wheeled robot, positioned more than 300 feet (90 meters) away, open fire with an M240 machine gun. The robot, which also uses thermal-imaging technology to spot concealed enemies, could protect soldiers from potentially dangerous assaults.

Humanoid robots fighting alongside troops on the battlefield may be some time off, the current wheel-bound creations already show strong promise, according to the Army. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]

“We were hoping to see how they remotely control lethal weapons,” Lt. Col. Willie Smith, chief of unmanned ground vehicles at Fort Benning, told ComputerWorld of the technology demonstration. “We were pleased with what we saw here. The technology is getting to be where it needs to be. It’s a start.”

While gun-toting robots are not yet officially used by the military in combat, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines have experimented with prototype machines.

Smith said he is unsure how soon armed robots may join the Army’s ranks, but he hopes the military will begin introducing these types of robots into battlefield settings within five years. “They’re not just tools, but members of the squad. That’s the goal,” Smith told ComputerWorld.

Northrop Grumman, iRobot Corp, HDT Robotics and QinetiQ were among the commercial companies demonstrating their hardware for the military, reported ComputerWorld. The robots can be equipped with a variety of weapons, and are capable of performing a range of tasks.

Northrop Grumman’s robot, the Carry-all Mechanized Equipment Landrover or CaMEL, uses a telescope and thermal-imaging technology to identify enemies up to 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) away. The robot can operate for more than 20 hours on 3.5 gallons of fuel, according to Northrop Grumman. The CaMEL is also capable of wielding a number of lethal weapons, including a grenade launcher, an automatic weapon and anti-tank missiles.

The robots, which can be operated through satellite communications, ensure that human soldiers can remain safely out of harms way, in some cases hundreds of miles away from the battlefield.

Executives from the robotics companies say the robots can be air-dropped into a war zone from a helicopter or plane, or may rove alongside the troops on patrol, reported ComputerWorld.

Still, don’t expect these mechanized warriors to take over completely for human soldiers. At least not yet, said Tollie Strode Jr., a senior project officer with the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning.

“The robot may acquire an enemy target, but it will still always ask a human for permission to fire,” Strode told ComputerWorld. “I think the ability for a robot to acquire and assess a target and ID it as a threat and fire is probably five or 10 years out. However, even if that capability exists … we’ll have a human in the process of deciding what to do.”

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Picture of the Day


Sizzling hot. TGO

Denise Milani 10.21.2013

Flexible…


Flexible brunette… TGO

16

Mission Possible: Existing Tech Can Take Humans to Mars (Op-Ed)


Interesting stuff… TGO

Refer to story below. Source: SPACE.com

SPACE.com

By Doug Turnbull October 18, 2013 12:23 PM

Mars

Doug Turnbull writes science fiction based on hard science. Most of his books, novellas and short stories confront problems faced by early settlers of other worlds. He contributed this article to SPACE.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Pathfinder hung in space about a mile behind and below the Mission Assembly Habitat (MAH). From the vantage point of the MAH, the ship appeared small and was a shining, roughly cylindrical shape, the details of a complex array of tanks and machinery that occupied the rear half of the structure just barely discernible from this distance. In reality, Pathfinder was over two hundred feet in length and twenty-five feet in diameter. Fuel tanks, machinery, and the combustion chambers of its engine occupied the rear half of the craft, while the cylinder containing the crew quarters and the stack of five Orion II landing craft occupied the front half. The blue expanse of the central Pacific shone brightly in the background. Suddenly the view of the Hawaiian Islands at the rear of Pathfinder blurred as the gasses from its engines exhausted, and the ship began to move, quickly appearing to catch up and pass the habitat. Cameras on board the MAH captured the event, tracking the ship’s progress. Pathfinder disappeared within a minute.

— From “Pathfinder: Mission to Mars”

This is science fiction, set a decade or more into the future. But it need not be fiction: The means for missions to Mars, the moon and deep space are within current capabilities.

By assembling mission ships in low Earth orbit (LEO), it is possible to mount deep-space flights using existing equipment. In order to accomplish this, the mission will need a crew habitat in a permanent LEO congruent to the solar system’s plane of the ecliptic, the plane on which most of the planets travel in their journey around the sun. Unfortunately, the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting over 25 degrees above the ecliptic, does not meet this requirement and thus cannot practically be used as an assembly point for lunar and planetary missions.

Instead, for a Mission Assembly Habitat (MAH), I propose using a mission-modified version of the Zvezda habitat module currently in use on the Russian portion of the ISS. There are several reasons for selecting this habitat. First, we know it works: It has been in service for many years and has been substantially debugged. Second, it is already fitted and designed to be docked with the Soyuz spacecraft. Third, it is large enough that, along with the Soyuz, there will be plenty of room for a crew of two or three people for the time it takes to assemble the components of a specific mission. Fourth, it weighs about 19 metric tons (21 tons), which operational launch vehicles can currently handle. And finally, it shortens the construction timeline because engineers need only modify existing technology rather than invent something new.

Right now, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is the only organization delivering astronauts into LEO. Therefore, in the near term, the well-tested Soyuz spacecraft seems a logical choice for the human launch and return portions of a mission assembly architecture. On the other hand, there are several options available for delivering the actual deep-space mission spacecraft and propulsion modules to LEO. The United Launch Alliance has both the Atlas V and Delta systems that are capable of placing 20-ton payloads into LEO, as can the Roscosmos Proton.

There are currently three major proposals for missions to Mars. Inspiration Mars is a Mars circumnavigation proposal by aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and astronaut Dennis Tito that, for reasons of orbital mechanics, must occur in 2018. The Mars Society’s Mars Direct plan, led by Robert Zubrin, proposes that an empty, human-passenger-capable spacecraft go to Mars first, with the robotic capacity to make fuel locally, so that a return craft is ready and fueled for the flight home before the manned portion of the mission leaves Earth. The Mars One mission, proposed by Bas Lansdorp of the Netherlands-based Mars One Foundation, postulates one-way missions to Mars and the establishment of permanent settlements beginning in the early 2020s.

Any of these proposals — I believe all three have merit and should probably occur in succession — would need the support of constructed mission architecture.

As currently envisioned, all three proposals require a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) —something like the Space Launch System (SLS) planned by NASA, or the commercial SpaceX Falcon Heavy. However, neither HLV has flown. The commercial HLLV is scheduled to be flight-worthy in 2014, while no set schedule exists for NASA’s SLS.

Inspiration Mars plans to utilize the Falcon Heavy and the SpaceX Dragon crewed spacecraft,as well as an inflatable habitat. All three are still under development. In addition, none of this equipment has been certified as “human rated” — in other words, cleared by NASA as safe for human spaceflight. Despite the current lack of testing and certification, this mission’s architecture has two advantages over the others: It is the only one of the three programs on a fixed time schedule, and it utilizes launch technology that is nearing completion. However, should any one of the three new systems fail to meet the deadline, especially the Falcon Heavy, the entire plan would be endangered. To ensure that the Mars mission occurs in any case, I suggest a backup plan using equipment that is already operational.

I propose that the spacecraft be assembled at the MAH. It would consist of a modified Zvezda habitat module (similar to the MAH), a docked Soyuz spacecraft and the propulsion unit(s). The Soyuz could serve as a refuge in the event that the mission encounters a solar flare. It would also be the Earth re-entry vehicle. I envision a crew of three, all of whom would be experts in the technical operations of the ship. The sheer length of the mission and probability of some sort of equipment failure are high enough to require everyone be well versed in the mechanics of the craft. There would be no pilots or pure scientists on this trip, although many scientific experiments and studies could be conducted as a part of the mission.

In order to achieve insertion into an orbit that will take the spacecraft around Mars and back to Earth, it will have to add about 2.2 miles per second (3.5 kilometers per second) of delta-v (change in velocity) to its 5.2 mps (8.3 km/s) orbital velocity. Again, sticking with off-the-shelf equipment, I suggest that the missions use Russian-built Briz-M propulsion units in stages to accomplish this task. Briz-M has had some reliability issues, so any alternative propulsion unit with greater reliability that is already in service and weighs no more than 20 metric tons (22 tons) could also serve this function.

Several reasons inform this backup concept. First, by using tried-and-true launch equipment, the probability of meeting the mission deadline is enhanced. Second, assembling large structures from modules in LEO is established technology; the ISS is built, and many of the astronauts, engineers and technicians who did it are still alive and employed at NASA. Third, the Inspiration Mars mission will be an excellent opportunity to continue to perfect assembly and rendezvous techniques that will be utilized by later missions. And it can serve as a Mars mission architecture model and an inspiration for the more ambitious Mars Direct and Mars One missions.

Turnbull’s most recent Op-Ed was “Midcentury Life, on Mars.” The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on SPACE.com.

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