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current affairs-- july 2013


Google launches Internet-beaming balloons
Wrinkled and skinny at first, the translucent, jellyfish-shaped balloons that Google released in second week of June 2013, from a frozen field in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, hardened into shiny pumpkins as they rose into the blue winter skies above Lake Tekapo, passing the first big test of a lofty goal to get the entire planet online.

It was the culmination of 18 months’ work on what Google calls Project Loon. Developed in the secretive X lab that came up with a driverless car and web-surfing eyeglasses, the flimsy helium-filled inflatables beam the Internet down to earth as they sail past on the wind.

Still in their experimental stage, the balloons were the first of thousands that Google’s leaders eventually hope to launch 20 kilometres into the stratosphere in order to bridge the gaping digital divide between the world’s 4.8 billion unwired people and their 2.2 billion plugged-in counterparts.

If successful, the technology might allow countries to leapfrog the expense of laying fibre cable, dramatically increasing Internet usage in places such as Africa and Southeast Asia.

The first person to get Google Balloon Internet access was Charles Nimmo, a farmer and entrepreneur in the small town of Leeston. Nimmo got the Internet for about 15 minutes before the balloon transmitting it sailed on past.

Google’s balloons fly free and out of eyesight, scavenging power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below and gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day as the balloons sail around the globe on the prevailing winds. Far below, ground stations with Internet capabilities about 100 kilometers apart bounce signals up to the balloons. The signals hop forward, from one balloon to the next, along a backbone of up to five balloons.

Each balloon would provide Internet service for an area of around 1,250 square kilometers, and terrain is not a challenge. They could stream Internet into Afghanistan’s steep and winding Khyber Pass or Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a country where the World Bank estimates four out of every 100 people are online.

IAF inducts its first heavy-lift C-17 Globemaster III
The first of the 10 US-made Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft landed at the Hindon airbase on 18 June 2013. The aircraft will enhance the operational potential of the IAF with its payload carriage and performance capability. It would also augment the strategic reach during disaster relief and similar missions.

The induction of C-17 (ordered for $4.1 billion) is a major milestone in the modernisation of the IAF. Five C-17 aircraft will be delivered in 2013, while the remaining five will come in 2014. With the completion of the order, India will become the largest C-17 operator outside the US.

Each plane has a carrying capacity of 74 tonne, which is more than double the capacity of the IAF’s existing heavy-lift aircraft-Soviet-origin IL-76.

The new acquisition will play a crucial role in any force projection along the 4,057-km-long frontier with China. The plane can land at small forward airbases on semi-prepared runways, termed as advanced landing grounds (ALGs) in the Indian Defence Ministry’s parlance. Such ALGs exist in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The aircraft can also land on unprepared sand runways with a clearance of 3,000 feet even while carrying its full load of 74 tonne.

The aircraft’s real use will be for carrying heavy equipment such as tanks or helicopters. It has an endurance of 4,500 km, hence allowing India to dominate its area of interest from the straits of Malacca in east to the Persian Gulf in west.

INS Trikand commissioned
On 29 June 2013, in a boost to its naval prowess, India inducted a Russian-built guided missile warship, INS Trikand, into the Navy at a shipyard in Kaliningrad, Russia.

The commissioning of INS Trikand marked the culmination of a three ship contract for “Follow On Talwar Class” ships built in Russia. Her sister ships INS Teg and INS Tarkash were commissioned in 2012 and are now undertaking operations as part of the Western Fleet.

INS Trikand carries a state-of-the-art combat suite which includes the supersonic BRAHMOS missile system, advanced surface-to-air missiles Shtil, upgraded A190 medium range gun, electro-optical 30 mm close-in weapon system, anti-submarine weapons such as torpedoes and rockets and an advanced electronic warfare system. The ship is powered by four gas turbines and is capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots.

Network of laboratories for managing epidemics and natural calamities
The Union government has approved two Health Ministry proposals for setting up a network of laboratories for managing epidemics and natural calamities in India, and research units in 80 government medical colleges.

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has cleared the proposal to establish 10 regional labs, 30 State level labs and another 120 labs in medical colleges in the country to manage epidemics and natural calamities.

The initiative will greatly help in building capacity for handling viral diseases in the country in terms of early and timely diagnosis, development of tools to predict viral disease outbreaks beforehand, continuous monitoring and surveillance of existing as well as new viral strains and handling viruses with a potential to be used as agents of bio-terrorism.

The move will also enable smooth data flow from epidemic sites, and create an efficient knowledge management network for policy interventions through quick deployment of resources, introduction of preventive strategies and new vaccines, among others.

The proposal involves a total expenditure of Rs 646.83 crore, of which the Centre will spend Rs 485 crore, the remaining amount being the States’ contribution to set up the laboratories.

Archicebus achilles could be humanity’s earliest primate cousin
A tiny primate that lived 55 million years ago has provided new clues about the origins of the primate ancestors of humans. The mouse-sized fossil, which was discovered in China, is the earliest known cousin of humans yet to be found.

Scientists believe the creature, which has been named Archicebus achilles, provides new insights into where our ancestors first evolved. Rather than evolving in Africa as was believed in the past, the discovery supports theories that monkeys, apes and humans first appeared in Asia.

Researchers say Archicebus belongs on a branch of the primate evolutionary tree that eventually evolved into tarsiers, small mammals with big round eyes that live in Asia. The fossilised skeleton has some features–like a characteristic heel bone–that are still found in our closest animal relatives today. This suggests that the animal probably appeared on Earth very shortly after diverging from the group of animals that includes monkeys and humans.

The fossil, which is named after the Greek God Achilles due to an odd heel bone it has, was discovered in a slab of slate in the Jingzhou area of eastern China, just south of the Yangtze river, by a local farmer around 10 years ago. The scientists then spent 10 years analysing the fossil using advanced imaging facilities at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. This allowed them to peer inside the rock to look at details of the skeleton that were hidden and produce a three dimensional image of the remains.

They believe Archicebus, which was less than three inches long and would have weighed between 20 to 30 grams, had feet like a small monkey, beady little eyes and sharp molar teeth. It probably ate insects and lived in the branches of the tropical forests that would have covered the area at the start of the Eocene, when mammals started to dominate the Earth.

The 2013 G-8 Summit was held here. Enniskillen is a town and civil parish in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. It is located almost exactly in the centre of the county between the Upper and Lower sections of Lough Erne.

Rancho Mirage
Rancho Mirage is a resort city in Riverside County, California, United States. US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping secluded themselves here on 7 June 2013 for a two-day Summit meeting. Xi made his first trip to the United States as President, months after taking control of the full machinery of the Chinese State, and US-based China watchers saw the talks as the most significant Sino-US summit in years.

ONGC’s Gas-based power plant in Tripura dedicated to the nation
On 21 June 2013, President Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated the Rs 3,429-crore power project of State- owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp's (ONGC) in Tripura. The first unit of the 726.6 MW gas-based power plant, located at Palatana in Tripura, had started generating electricity in October 2012.

The Rs 3,429 crore project has been built by through a special purpose vehicle, ONGC Tripura Power Company (OTPC). ONGC holds 50 per cent stake in the company while Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Service Ltd (IL&FS) has 26 per cent. Government of Tripura has 0.5 per cent equity.

Sources said ONGC has built the project to monetise natural gas reserves it has discovered in Tripura. These reserves are yet to be commercially developed due to low industrial demand in the North-Eastern region.

The complexities of logistics and attendant costs limit the economic viability of transportation of gas to other parts of the country where gas is in deficit.

Power generated at the plant will be evacuated through a 400 kV Transmission system connecting Palatana (generation project site) in Tripura to Bongaigaon in Assam over a distance of around 650 km.

The power project, whose foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October 2005, will help solve the power crisis of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura.

The project was also a hallmark of cooperation between India and Bangladesh, which ensured smooth passage of heavy project equipment and turbines to Palatana through its territory by road and waterways, from Haldia port in West Bengal.

India’s longest rail tunnel
A 11-km railway tunnel across the Pir Panjal mountain range, inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 26 July 2013, is not only the longest such in India but an engineering marvel and a “dream come true” for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

It took seven years for thousands of men, most of them highly-trained and skilled in tunnel building, who braved geographical constraints and inclement weather to build the all-weather tunnel. Some of the tunnel boring machinery—an improved Austrian version—was used for the first time on such a large scale in the country during the laying of the tunnel.

A three-metre-wide road has also been provided inside the tunnel for maintenance and relief and rescue operations in the event of any eventuality.

The tunnel has been made water-proof by providing a continuous PVC membrane between the primary and secondary lining. It is also equipped with state-of-the-art air quality monitoring, communications, fire-fighting and emergency rescue systems.

Built at a cost of Rs.1,300 crores, the tunnel has reduced the surface distance between the Qazigund town in the Valley and Banihal town in the Jammu region by 18 km, besides providing an all-weather surface link between the two regions.

Albert Einstein, Europe’s largest spaceship
European Space Agency’s (ESA) fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle, Albert Einstein—the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Europe, completed a flawless rendezvous with the International Space Station on 15 June 2013.

The 20-tonne ferry flew autonomously and docked with the 420-tonne complex with a precision of a few cm as both circled Earth at 28 000 km/h.

The rendezvous and docking were performed autonomously by ATV’s own computers, closely monitored by flight controllers from ESA and France’s CNES space agency at the ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France, and by Luca Parmitano and his crew-mates on the Station.

Like its predecessors, ATV-4 is much more than a simple supply vessel: it is a space tug, a tanker, a freighter and a temporary habitation module.
To compensate for the natural decay in altitude of the Station’s orbit caused by atmospheric drag, it is loaded with 2580 kg of propellant to perform regular re-boosts. It can even move the entire space complex out of the path of hazardous space debris. ATV also provides attitude control when other spacecraft are approaching the Station.

In its tanks, it carried 860 kg of propellant, 100 kg of oxygen and air, and 570 kg of drinking water, all to be pumped into the Station’s tanks. In its pressurised cargo module, it carried more than 1400 items packed into 141 bags, including 2480 kg of dry cargo such as scientific equipment, spare parts, food and clothes for the astronauts.

Chinese astronauts give physics lessons from space
Three astronauts gave China’s first physics lesson from space in a live broadcast from the Tiangong-1 orbital capsule some 340 kilometres above Earth on 20 June 2013.

Wang Yaping, China’s second woman in space, led the one-hour lesson, which was broadcast live on national television and to several hundred schoolchildren in a Beijing theatre. She demonstrated gravity, pendulum movement, gyroscopic motion and the surface tension of water in space.

She was aided by her two crew members on the Shenzhou-10 mission, Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang.

Launched on 11 June 2013, on a 15-day mission, the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft docked with Tiangong-1 on 13 June to form a small space laboratory. It was China’s fifth and longest scheduled manned space mission and marked a key step towards China’s goal of assembling a permanent space station by 2020.

In 2003, China had become the third nation to launch an astronaut into space, after Russia and the United States.

Curtains on Telegram
Smartphones, email and SMS seem to have pushed the humble telegram service to a quiet corner, with the BSNL deciding to discontinue the 160-year-old telegraph service from 15 July 2013.

Once the main source of quick and urgent communication, the service delivered much happy and sad news to people across the country, but with the advent of technology and newer means of communication, the telegram found itself edged out.

Rupee weakening against dollar
The recent bout of weakness in rupee vis-a-vis the dollar was fuelled by the prospect of the unwinding of the bond purchase programme of the US Federal Reserve. The US Fed had been printing money to bolster its economy. Once there are signs of some strength in the US economy, it will start winding down the programme of adding more money into the system.

A possible winding down of the asset purchase programme of the US Fed and improvement in the health of the US economy strengthen the US dollar. Investors started withdrawing investments from emerging markets such as India and chasing assets in the US, since assets in a strengthening US economy are seen as attractive. The outflow of money from emerging markets, including India, lead to currency weakness.


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