SpaceX Gets US Approval to Deploy up to 7,500 Satellites

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said on Thursday it approved SpaceX’s bid to deploy up to 7,500 satellites but put on hold other decisions.

SpaceX’s Starlink, a fast-growing network of more than 3,500 satellites in low-Earth orbit, has tens of thousands of users in the United States so far, with consumers paying at least $599 for a user terminal and $110 a month for service. The FCC in 2018 approved SpaceX plans to deploy up to 4,425 first-generation satellites.

SpaceX has sought approval to operate a network of 29,988 satellites, to be known as its “second-generation” or Gen2 Starlink constellation to beam the internet to areas with little or no internet access.

“Our action will allow SpaceX to begin deployment of Gen2 Starlink, which will bring next generation satellite broadband to Americans nationwide,” the FCC said in its approval order, adding it “will enable worldwide satellite broadband service, helping to close the digital divide on a global scale.”

The FCC said its decision “will protect other satellite and terrestrial operators from harmful interference and maintain a safe space environment” and protect “spectrum and orbital resources for future use.”

In August, a U.S. appeals court upheld the 2021 decision of the FCC to approve a SpaceX plan to deploy some Starlink satellites at a lower Earth orbit than planned as part of its push to offer space-based broadband internet.

In September, SpaceX challenged the FCC decision to deny it $885.5 million in rural broadband subsidies. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in August that Starlink’s technology “has real promise” but it could not meet the program’s requirements, citing data that showed a steady decline in speeds over the past year and casting the service’s price as too steep for consumers.

US Justices Keep Student Loan Cancellation Blocked for Now

The Supreme Court on Thursday said the Biden administration program to cancel some student debt will remain blocked for now, but the justices agreed to take up the case in late winter.

The court’s decision to hear arguments relatively quickly means it is likely to determine whether the widespread loan cancellations are legal by late June.

That’s about two months before the newly extended pause on loan repayments is set to expire.

The administration had wanted a court order that would have allowed the program to take effect even as court challenges proceed. But as a fallback, it suggested the high court hold arguments and decide the issue.

Biden’s plan promises $10,000 in federal student debt forgiveness to those with incomes of less than $125,000, or households earning less than $250,000. Pell Grant recipients, who typically demonstrate more financial need, are eligible for an additional $10,000 in relief.

The Congressional Budget Office has said the program will cost about $400 billion over the next three decades.

More than 26 million people have applied for the relief, with 16 million approved, but the Education Department stopped processing applications last month after a federal judge in Texas struck down the plan.

The Texas case is one of two in which federal judges have forbidden the administration from implementing the loan cancellations.

In a separate lawsuit filed by six states, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis also put the plan on hold, and that case before the Supreme Court.

Lava From Mauna Loa Eruption Threatens Key Hawaiian Highway

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Thursday issued red alerts regarding the ongoing eruption of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Volcano — the world’s largest active volcano — as lava flows from the eruption are posing a threat to a major highway.

The agency’s red alert warning means a volcanic eruption is underway that poses limited hazards to ground-based communities. The alert includes an aviation warning, as significant emission of ash into the atmosphere could affect air traffic.

The USGS says lava from Mauna Loa is flowing from two active fissures, and the most active flow is moving toward the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road. The highway is considered the major highway on Hawaii’s Big Island where Mauna Loa is located.

In its report, the USGS said the largest lava flow was about 5.8 kilometers from the highway, and as of Thursday had slowed to about 24 meters per hour. The report said the flows are reaching a relatively flat area and are beginning to slow down.

The USGS explained that as this happens, the lava flow will spread out and inflate. Forecasts indicate it may take two days for the lava flows to reach the highway.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported Wednesday that lava from the eruption crossed the access road to NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory — which measures carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — and had taken out power lines to the site.

The Associated Press reported that the federal government is looking for a temporary alternate site on the Hawaiian island, as well as considering flying a generator to the observatory to get its power back up.

Mauna Loa began erupting Sunday for the first time since 1984, ending its longest quiet period in recorded history. It last erupted in March and April 1984, sending a flow of lava within 8.05 kilometers of Hilo, the Big Island’s largest city.

Mauna Loa is 4,169 meters high and part of the chain of volcanoes that formed the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean more than 5,800 kilometers from the U.S. mainland.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

India Dismisses Chinese Objections to India-US Military Drills Near Border

India has dismissed Beijing’s objections to U.S.-India military exercises being held close to India’s disputed border with China.

The drills between Indian and U.S. soldiers began in mid-November and are due to conclude Friday. Part of annual exercises held by the two sides, this year’s maneuvers are taking place in the Himalayan mountains in Auli in Uttarakhand state, about 100 kilometers from the border area, known as the Line of Actual Control.   

China said on Wednesday that the joint exercises “violated the spirit of relevant agreements” between Beijing and New Delhi. “It does not serve the mutual trust between China and India. China has expressed concerns to the Indian side over the military exercise,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing in Beijing. 

Responding to China’s comments, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said Thursday that “India exercises with whomsoever it chooses to, and it does not give a veto to third countries on this issue.” 

Bagchi said the exercises had nothing to do with the agreements China had referred to. “But since these were raised, the Chinese side needs to reflect upon and think upon its own breach of these agreements,” according to Bagchi.  

Tensions between India and China have escalated since a bloody border clash in 2020 killed 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers in the Ladakh area. As a result, both sides continue to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers backed by artillery, tanks and fighter jets along the disputed border and are rapidly building infrastructure in the Himalayan mountains.   

Following several rounds of talks between the military commanders of the two countries, soldiers have pulled back from some so-called “friction points” along the border where they were posted close to each other, but heavy deployments continue at other points that are of strategic significance to both sides.  

The U.S. Department of Defense said in a report this week that China “warned” U.S. officials not to interfere in its relations with India following the border skirmishes. “The PRC (People’s Republic of China) seeks to prevent border tensions from causing India to partner more closely with the United States,” stated the report on “Military and Security Developments involving China” that was submitted to U.S. lawmakers.  

This year’s drills in Auli were the 18th edition of joint exercises known as “Yudh Abhyas” or “War Practice” that are held alternately in the U.S. and India with the aim of exchanging best practices, tactics and techniques. Last year’s exercises were held in Alaska.  

Before the drills commenced, India’s Ministry of Defense said the exercises will focus on surveillance, mountain-warfare skills, casualty evacuation and combat medical aid in adverse terrain and climatic conditions.   

The exercises are part of deepening military cooperation between New Delhi and Washington, driven by mutual concerns over Beijing’s growing assertiveness. India is part of the Quad alliance, with the U.S, Australia and Japan, that aims to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.   

India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, has reiterated on several forums that New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing cannot be normal without peace in the border areas.

Верховна Рада схвалила закон про відпустки військовослужбовцям у час дії воєнного стану

За новим законом, військовослужбовці матимуть право на частину основної щорічної відпустки, а також відпустку за сімейними обставинами та з інших поважних причин зі збереженням грошового забезпечення

El Salvador Journalists Sue NSO Group in US Over Alleged Pegasus Surveillance

Salvadoran digital newspaper El Faro’s employees filed a lawsuit in a U.S. federal court on Wednesday against NSO Group, alleging the Israeli firm’s controversial Pegasus software was used to spy on them.

The lawsuit was filed in California by 13 El Faro journalists and two administrative staff, represented by lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Pegasus was used to breach the phones of at least 22 people associated with El Faro, including the plaintiffs, compromising their communications and data, according to the complaint — a copy of which was released by the Knight Institute.

“Their devices were accessed remotely and surreptitiously, their communications and activities monitored, and their personal data accessed and stolen,” it alleges.

“The attacks have compromised Plaintiffs’ safety as well as the safety of their colleagues, sources, and family members.”

These alleged activities violated the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), according to the lawsuit.

The Pegasus software infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or to activate a camera or microphone to spy on their owners.

NSO Group claims it is only sold to government agencies to target criminals and terrorists, with the green light of Israeli authorities.

The company has been criticized by global rights groups for privacy violations around the world and is facing lawsuits from major tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft.

U.S. authorities put NSO Group on a blacklist last year, with the Commerce Department saying the firm’s tools “enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression.”

The El Salvador government has denied it was behind the surveillance of El Faro staff.

“Unfortunately, we have had to look for a court in another country, because there is no possibility that in El Salvador we can obtain justice,” El Faro’s director, Carlos Dada, said in a statement.

“One of the main demands of this lawsuit is that the federal court requires NSO Group to identify, return and delete all information obtained through these attacks,” El Faro said. 

“The court is also requested to prohibit NSO Group from re-executing Pegasus against the members of this media and that the same federal court issue an order against NSO Group so that it can disclose the client who was behind the espionage.”

Mixed Feelings About US in Afghanistan More Than a Year After Withdrawal

Despite its chaotic military and diplomatic withdrawal from Afghanistan over a year ago, U.S. global leadership approval has seen a slight uptick among some Afghans, a new survey conducted inside the country says. 

Approval of U.S. leadership among all Afghans is measured at 18%, slightly more than the 14% measured last year, while U.S. popularity is sharply different among different ethnic groups in Afghanistan. 

“The U.S. remains popular among Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic community; 53% are still supportive of U.S. leadership,” Gallup said in a statement about its latest survey in the country. 

The Shia Hazaras are an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan making up 10 to 12% of the country’s estimated 36 million people. 

Gallup says its surveyors interviewed 1,000 men and women from 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces this year.  

Among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the U.S. remains widely unpopular with only an 8% approval rate, while among Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group, it’s reported at 23% 

Most Taliban leaders are Pashtuns who fought against the United States in Afghanistan from 2002 until U.S. and Taliban representatives signed a peace agreement in February 2020. 

Despite its complex history of engagement in Afghanistan, the U.S. remains more popular in the South Asian country than China and Russia, whose leadership approval rates are equally ranked at 14% in the survey. 

The U.S. spent about $2 trillion on the Afghan war for over two decades. More than 150,000 people lost their lives in the war, including at least 2,400 U.S. military personnel. 

A majority of Americans, 69%, said the U.S. mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, according to an August 2022 Pew survey. 

Loss of hope

The drastic changes Afghanistan has seen over the last year seem to have disappointed an overwhelming majority of ordinary Afghans, according to the Gallup survey. 

Nearly all Afghans, 98%, rated their living conditions as “suffering” under the new regime and only 11% said they have hopes for better opportunities for the next generation. 

Afghans are also increasingly concerned about a sharp deterioration in women’s rights. 

“A record-low 22% of Afghans say women in their country are treated with respect and dignity — down from the previous low of 31% in 2021,” reads a Gallup statement. 

“The one positive we did see was in relation to the safety that Afghans feel within their communities. The percentage of Afghans who feel safe walking alone at night in their communities increased from 22% to 52%,” said Khorshied Nusratty, a Gallup spokeswoman. 

The Taliban’s return to power has crippled the Afghan economy, pushing 90% of the population into poverty, the United Nations has reported. 

“Taliban’s rules of the 90s and currently can be encapsulated in one word: suffering,” Malaiz Daud, senior research fellow with the European Foundation for South Asian studies, told VOA. 

“They lack the management, organizational and resource mobilization skills to run a polity designed to look after an entire country.” 

Taliban officials, however, redirect all criticisms of economic paralysis to the West saying financial sanctions, assets freeze and a cessation of development assistance have pushed the country to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.