The Independence Day-shaped cloud hovering in the skies over Moscow


In what could have been a scene from the film Independence Day, a luminous ring-shaped cloud could be seen hovering over the city of Moscow last week.

The pale gold ‘halo’ could be seen above the Russian capital city’s Western District on Wednesday, and was captured on film by stunned Muscovites.

Meteorologists rejected any theories of the supernatural however, calling it an optical effect.


Luminous: The pale halo-shaped cloud was hovering over Moscow on Wednesday

A spokesman from the city’s weather forecast said: ‘Several fronts have been passing through Moscow recently, there was an intrusion of the Arctic air too, the sun was shining from the west – this is how the effect was produced.’

He added: ‘This is purely an optical effect, although it does look impressive.

‘If you observe clouds regularly, you may see many other astonishing things. Clouds of the same class may look absolutely different in different areas.’

Some environmentalists blamed pollution for the cloud, but weather forecasters were quick to reject the idea: ‘The phenomenon has nothing to do with industrial emissions,’ said one. ‘They could not produce such an effect against the background of the current weather conditions.

‘If something happens, there is the smog effect, but it appears only when the weather is quiet for a long time. The wind in Moscow has been quite strong recently.’

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Comment: absurd decision on Obama makes a mockery of the Nobel peace prize

The Times on Line – Michael Binyon

The award of this year’s Nobel peace prize to President Obama will be met with widespread incredulity, consternation in many capitals and probably deep embarrassment by the President himself.

Rarely has an award had such an obvious political and partisan intent. It was clearly seen by the Norwegian Nobel committee as a way of expressing European gratitude for an end to the Bush Administration, approval for the election of America’s first black president and hope that Washington will honour its promise to re-engage with the world.

Instead, the prize risks looking preposterous in its claims, patronising in its intentions and demeaning in its attempt to build up a man who has barely begun his period in office, let alone achieved any tangible outcome for peace.

The pretext for the prize was Mr Obama’s decision to “strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. Many people will point out that, while the President has indeed promised to “reset” relations with Russia and offer a fresh start to relations with the Muslim world, there is little so far to show for his fine words.

Times Archive, 1973: Worldwide criticism of Nobel peace awards
The choice of Dr Henry Kissinger and Mr Le Duc Tho as joint winners of the Nobel peace prize continued to provoke criticism today
Nobel prize for Kissinger
Letter: Nobel Peace Prize
Barack Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize
Obama – involve Taleban in Afghanistan future
Obama to restart Guantanamo Bay tribunals
East-West relations are little better than they were six months ago, and any change is probably due largely to the global economic downturn; and America’s vaunted determination to re-engage with the Muslim world has failed to make any concrete progress towards ending the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

There is a further irony in offering a peace prize to a president whose principal preoccupation at the moment is when and how to expand the war in Afghanistan.

The spectacle of Mr Obama mounting the podium in Oslo to accept a prize that once went to Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mother Theresa would be all the more absurd if it follows a White House decision to send up to 40,000 more US troops to Afghanistan. However just such a war may be deemed in Western eyes, Muslims would not be the only group to complain that peace is hardly compatible with an escalation in hostilities.

The Nobel committee has made controversial awards before. Some have appeared to reward hope rather than achievement: the 1976 prize for the two peace campaigners in Northern Ireland, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, was clearly intended to send a signal to the two battling communities in Ulster. But the political influence of the two winners turned out, sadly, to be negligible.

In the Middle East, the award to Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1978 also looks, in retrospect, as naive as the later award to Yassir Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — although it could be argued that both the Camp David and Oslo accords, while not bringing peace, were at least attempts to break the deadlock.

Mr Obama’s prize is more likely, however, to be compared with the most contentious prize of all: the 1973 prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for their negotiations to end the Vietnam war. Dr Kissinger was branded a warmonger for his support for the bombing campaign in Cambodia; and the Vietnamese negotiator was subsequently seen as a liar whose government never intended to honour a peace deal but was waiting for the moment to attack South Vietnam.

Mr Obama becomes the third sitting US President to receive the prize. The committee said today that he had “captured the world’s attention”. It is certainly true that his energy and aspirations have dazzled many of his supporters. Sadly, it seems they have so bedazzled the Norwegians that they can no longer separate hopes from achievement. The achievements of all previous winners have been diminished.

Moon crash will create six-mile plume of dust as Nasa searches for water

From The Times UK – Mark Henderson, Science Editor

A Nasa spacecraft will deliberately crash into the Moon next week on a mission that could enhance the prospects of establishing a manned lunar base.

Only two weeks after three probes discovered water on the Moon, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will blast two huge chunks out of its surface to establish whether it exists in a form that could be exploited by astronauts.

In the early hours of Friday morning, the LCROSS probe will separate from the Centaur upper stage of the rocket that carried it to lunar orbit, and send the spent module crashing into the Cabeus crater at the Moon’s south pole.

When the 2.4-tonne Centaur hits at 12.31pm BST, at a speed of 2.5km per second (1.6 miles per sec), it will throw up a plume of debris 10km (6 miles) high.

The LCROSS probe will then fly through the plume and analyse its contents with a battery of sophisticated instruments, before itself crashing into a different spot in the same crater four minutes later, to create a second cloud of dust and rubble.

The impacts, which will be visible from Earth through telescopes with mirrors of at least ten inches, will be studied both from the ground and with lunar orbiters, for traces of water and ice.

The goal is to confirm whether deep craters at the Moon’s poles, which never see the Sun, hold large quantities of water. Such a resource could potentially be tapped by future missions to the Moon for drinking water, oxygen and fuel, improving the outlook for a long-term human presence.

The culmination of the LCROSS mission follows the announcement last week that three probes, including India’s first lunar orbiter, had discovered traces of water all over the Moon’s surface. The water found by the Chandrayaan-1, Deep Impact and Cassini probes, however, is extremely scarce and inaccessible. It appears to exist only in the top millimetre or so of lunar soil regolith, tightly bound to minerals, and would be difficult for astronauts to use.

Large quantities of water at the poles, where hydrogen has been detected by several probes, would be a much more attractive resource for a lunar base. LCROSS should now establish whether or not it exists in at least one polar crater.

“It is an exciting time for water on the Moon,” said Dr Anthony Colaprete, the principal investigator for LCROSS. “Last week was great fun, and hopefully it’s about to get much more fun. You’d have a hard time using what Chandrayaan-1 saw as a resource. If deep craters really do have 1 to 2 per cent hydrogen [as observations suggest], and in water not minerals, that would be much more exploitable.”

As many polar craters are permanently in shadow, they are considered to be potential “cold traps” for water that reaches the Moon through the impact of asteroids and comets. Water of the sort discovered by Chandrayaan-1 could also migrate to these craters, as it sublimates during the hot lunar day and condenses into craters on reaching cold polar regions.

“These cold traps in permanently-shaded craters could have been accumulating water and building up over a billion years or more,” Dr Colaprete said, “That’s what we’re going to excavate and look at.”

The LCROSS impacts will test this hypothesis directly, by raising huge clouds of debris from the bottom of a deep lunar crater of the sort where ice is likely to collect. The Centaur and LCROSS will crash into the Cabeus crater, which is 98km (60 miles) across and of unknown depth: as it is permanently in shadow, this has been impossible to measure.

“The shadows are only so deep, so if you can make an impact that throws eject a few kilometres into the air, it goes from shadow into sunlight,” Dr Colaprete said.

The Centaur impact will leave a crater about 20 metres in diameter, and about 3m to 4m deep. “It’s about the size of a tennis court,” Dr Colaprete said. The explosion will have the energy of at least a tonne of TNT. The impact of LCROSS itself will be about two thirds as large.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe (LRO), which launched with LCROSS on June 18, will monitor the impacts, as will the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes. The impact time was chosen to offer the best possible viewing conditions from the Keck and Subaru observatories in Hawaii.

Nasa this week changed the impact site to Cabeus from the smaller nearby Cabeus A crater, because data from the LRO suggested that the bigger crater contained more hydrogen and was thus more likely to contain ice.

Cabeus was not the first choice because a mountain on its northern side could obscure the view of the debris from Earth-based telescopes.

“We’ve moved to a crater that’s a mixed blessing,” Dr Colaprete said.

“There’s a large hill in front of the impact site, but a deep shadow behind, so there will be less material in view but a higher contrast.

British astronomers will not be able to watch directly, as the impacts will occur in daylight, but large observatories will be able to see the Centaur separate from the LCROSS spacecraft.