Discovery of oxygen on comet ‘big surprise’

PARIS (AFP): Stunned scientists announced Wednesday the unexpected discovery of large quantities of oxygen on a comet which streaked past the Sun in August with a European spacecraft in tow.

The find came as a “big surprise”, and challenges mainstream theories on the formation of our Solar System, said scientist Andre Bieler of the University of Michigan.

Measurements made by the Rosetta probe suggested that oxygen molecules in the 67P comet’s gassy halo must have existed “before or at” its formation, he told journalists. This may have implications for mankind’s understanding of the chemistry involved in the formation of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago.

Scientists had previously ruled out the presence of oxygen (O2) on comets such as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the subject of intensive prodding and probing by a European robot lab.

As O2 mixes easily with other elements, “we never thought that oxygen could ‘survive’ for billions of years” in a pristine state, said Kathrin Altwegg of the University of Bern, who co-authored a study in the journal Nature.

“This evidence of oxygen as an ancient substance will likely discredit some theoretical models of the formation of our Solar System,” she said.

The comet is being tracked on its deep space journey around the Sun by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft. The historic mission seeks to unlock the mystery of the origins of life on Earth.

Scientists believe that comets “seeded” early Earth with some of the ingredients for life.

The team monitored the ratio of oxygen to water on the comet for several months to see if the gas molecules would dissipate as solar winds ripped away layers of surface.

They did not - proving the oxygen was embedded in the comet, not just hanging around its surface.

Prevailing theories of the Solar System’s birth posit a chaotic, collision-strewn mixing of matter flowing toward and away from the newly-formed Sun.

Pristine, icy grains containing oxygen would not have made it through such violence intact, the scientists said, leading them to speculate that the process was, in fact, “gentler”.

The oxygen molecules must have “survived from the dark molecular clouds from which they were probably formed into comets as we have them today,” said Altwegg.

Only twice before - on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn - have oxygen molecules been found in the Solar System beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and never before on a comet.

Oxygen is difficult to detect with Earth-bound telescopes. Rosetta offered a rare opportunity to study 67P’s “coma” - the envelope of dust, gas and ice that forms as it nears the Sun on an elliptical orbit.

The new data suggests that water on comets is probably the rule rather than the exception, the scientists said.

Scientists not involved in this study underlined its importance, but said more time was needed to assess the implications.

The discovery “imposes a severe constraint on the mechanism for the formation of the Solar System,” said French astrophysicist Francis Rocard. “But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” he cautioned.

Oxygen molecules were the fourth-most common gas detected in 67P’s debris halo - after water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Their presence did not tell us anything about the origins of life on Earth, of the possibility of finding it elsewhere in the universe, Altwegg said.

In looking at exo-planets, “the combination of O2 and methane has been taken as a sign that you might have life underneath,” she said.

“On this comet we have both, but we don’t have life. So having oxygen may not be a very good bio-signature.”

Ouattara wins second term as Ivory Coast president

ABIDJAN (AFP): Alassane Ouattara has won a second term as Ivory Coast president in the nation’s first peaceful vote in more than a decade, cementing its return to prosperity after years of turbulence, results showed Wednesday.

In a landslide victory, the 73-year-old former economist was re-elected for five years with almost 84 percent of the vote in the first round of the ballot Sunday, with turnout at 54.6 percent. His nearest rival, ex premier Pascal Affi N’Guessan, won 9.3pc on behalf of the Ivorian Popular Front - the party of former leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Marking a sharp contrast with the violence of the last presidential race in 2010, the October 25 ballot was praised by observers as being generally smooth and peaceful. Ouattara unseated Gbagbo in 2010 but the then president refused to concede defeat, sparking months of violence in the country already split in two in which some 3,000 people died. Gbagbo was eventually defeated by pro-Ouattara forces, backed by the UN and France, and is now awaiting trial before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

This election shows “the 2010 crisis is behind us,” said Issouf Bakayoko, who heads the country’s electoral commission.

Ouattara has been credited with reviving the economy of the war-scarred country, the world’s leading cocoa producer, investing in huge infrastructure projects that have helped raise annual growth to around 9 percent.

He had pledged that if re-elected he would cut back unemployment, continue to improve roads and other infrastructure, and provide electricity country-wide.

“I’m so happy he was re-elected because of this massive work he began,” said pensioner Fatou Kone. “”We’ve got to give him time to finish and to do more for the country.”

The streets of the economic capital were quiet Wednesday after news of the results, again in contrast to the violence that plagued Abidjan after the last presidential vote.

Runner-up Affi N’Guessan told the media that “I extend my congratulations” to Ouattara, who is expected to be sworn in next month.

But he said low turnout in parts of the country, where northerners and southerners have often been at loggerheads, showed Ivory Coast remained divided and “in need of reconciliation and democracy.”

Academic Christian Bouquet told AFP that he believed turnout had been relatively low though Ouattara had picked up more votes in 2015 than in 2010.

Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund official, had said he hoped to see a high turnout from the country’s 23 million people to cement his mandate.

A peaceful and credible election was seen as crucial to help Ivory Coast recover its former status as a beacon of progress and prosperity in the region.

Known as “Ado” after his initials, Ouattara was born in central Ivory Coast but for some time was barred from running for office in the country due to questions over his national identity.

Rivals introduced the nationalist concept of “Ivorian-ness” that barred anyone with a non-Ivorian parent and who had not lived in the country for the past five years from running for office.

Ouattara did most of his schooling in Burkina Faso and later worked there, prompting accusations he was not sufficiently Ivorian.

War crimes, forced cannibalism in S Sudan

ADDIS ABABA (AFP): Both the government and rebels in South Sudan carried out war crimes against civilians and should face justice, an African Union human rights investigation has found.

The AU's Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan lists a string of abuses, including forced cannibalism and dismemberment, according to the report published late Tuesday.

It also presents testimony that the ethnic violence, which began in the capital Juba in December 2013, may have been premeditated.

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of murder, rape and sexual violence, torture and other inhumane acts... have been committed by both sides to the conflict," the report said.

However it added that there were "no reasonable grounds to believe that the crime of genocide has occurred".

"The Commission believes that war crimes were committed in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal," the 342-page report read, referring to key towns in South Sudan.

The report called for an internationally backed, African-led court to try those responsible for the violence. It said a "highly confidential list" of "possible alleged perpetrators" will be submitted to the AU's Peace and Security Council.

Among the most shocking of many acts of "extreme cruelty" identified in the report were claims of "draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others from one ethnic community to drink the blood or eat burnt human flesh".

The commission, led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, carried out its research in 2014.

But publication was delayed as African leaders and AU officials feared the report might undermine peace talks. A peace deal was finally signed by President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar in August this year, but a ceasefire has been repeatedly broken.

A recommendation - contained in a leaked earlier draft of the report - that Kiir, Machar and others be barred from political office was dropped from the final report, but remained in a published "Separate Opinion" submitted by commission member Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan academic.

Much of the worst of the documented violence was carried out in Juba, where soldiers of Kiir's Dinka tribe massacred ethnic Nuers, and in the town of Bor, where Nuers loyal to Machar killed Dinkas.

"The atrocities were widespread and carried out systematically across the country in the key theatres of violence targeting specific groups of civilians based on their ethnicity," the report read.

"The manifestation of the conflict, and subsequent geographical spread, gives rise to an inference of an element of coordination that hardly seems possible without forethought," it added.

The report gave little credence to Kiir's claim that the civil war was triggered by Machar planning a coup, and included testimony that the Dinka-on-Nuer violence in Juba had been prepared in advance.

"The Commission found that most of the atrocities were carried out against civilian populations taking no active part in the hostilities. Places of religion and hospitals were attacked, humanitarian assistance was impeded, towns pillaged and destroyed," the report said.

The commission said the AU should establish an independent "hybrid" court, as well as a reparations fund and a truth commission.

India to ban surrogacy service to foreigners

NEW DELHI (AFP): India's government said Wednesday it would ban foreigners from using surrogate mothers in the country, a move likely to hit the booming commercial surrogacy industry.

Ranks of childless foreign couples have flocked to the country in recent years looking for a cheap, legal and simple route to parenthood. Health industry estimates put the size of India's surrogacy business at nine billion rupees ($138 million) and growing at 20 percent a year.

But critics have said a lack of legislation encourages "rent-a-womb" exploitation of young, poor Indian women.

In an affidavit to the Supreme Court on Wednesday the government said it "does not support commercial surrogacy".

"No foreigners can avail surrogacy services in India," it told the court, which is hearing a petition regarding the industry, adding that surrogacy would be available "only for Indian couples".

Thousands of infertile couples, many from overseas, hire the wombs of Indian women to carry their embryos through to birth.

India, with cheap technology, skilled doctors and a steady supply of local surrogates, is one of relatively few countries where women can be paid to carry another's child.

Surrogacy for profit is illegal in many other countries.

The process usually involves in-vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer, leading to a rise in fertility centres offering such services.

A top fertility expert branded the government's move discriminatory, while a leading women's activist warned it could push the industry underground and out of reach of regulators.

"Banning commercial surrogacy will send some couples onto the black market and deprive other couples of the chance of children," Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, told AFP.

"Our research shows many surrogates do not have health insurance and are paid poorly, among other issues," she said, adding that stronger regulation rather than an outright ban was needed.

The private petition to the top court seeks a halt to the importation of human embryos for commercial purposes.

Earlier this month the court in Delhi expressed its concern and ordered the government to spell out measures for regulating the industry.

The government's affidavit, presented to the court by Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, said it would "require some time to bring the law in place".

"The government will prohibit and penalise commercial surrogacy services," it said.

The government has been consulting women's groups and the health industry on a draft bill, the Assisted Reproductive Technology, that seeks to regulate the industry.

Clinic owners denied ill-treatment of surrogate mothers, saying it is in their interests to treat the women well so they produce healthy babies.

Dr Nayana Patel, one of India's leading fertility specialists, said the move discriminated against foreigners who were also desperate to have children.

"Yes, there need to be strict checks and counter checks but banning foreigners is not the answer. It's inhuman," Patel told AFP.

"There is no exploitation, it's a voluntary contract between human beings involving an exchange of money. What's wrong with that?"

"It's a dignified earning. Instead of women working as maids, they can be surrogates," said Patel, who runs the Akanksha fertility clinic in the western state of Gujarat.

The latest move comes after India issued new rules in 2012 barring foreign gay couples and single people from using surrogate mothers to become parents, drawing sharp criticism from gay rights advocates and fertility clinics.

The existing rules say foreign couples seeking to enter into a surrogacy arrangement in India must be a "man and woman (who) are duly married and the marriage should be sustained at least two years".

The cost of surrogacy in India generally ranges from about $18,000 to $30,000, of which around $8,000 goes to the surrogate mother. The figure is roughly a third of the US price.