US Students’ ‘Big Idea’ Could Help NASA Explore the Moon

Last November, Northeastern University student Andre Neto Caetano watched the live, late-night launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a cellphone placed on top of a piano in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in California.

“I had, not a flashback, but a flash-forward of seeing maybe Artemis 4 or something, and COBRA, as part of the payload, and it is on the moon doing what it was meant to do,” Caetano told VOA during a recent Skype interview.

Artemis 1 launched the night before Caetano and his team of scholars presented their Crater Observing Bio-inspired Rolling Articulator (COBRA) rover project at NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. The team hoped to impress judges assembled in the remote California desert.

“They were skeptical that the mobility solutions that we were proposing would actually work,” he said.

That skepticism, said Caetano, came from the simplicity of their design.

“It’s a robot that moves like a snake, and then the head and the tail connect, and then it rolls,” he said.

NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge prompted teams of college students to compete to develop solutions for the agency’s ambitious goals in the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, which Caetano explains are “extreme lunar terrain mobility.”

Northeastern’s COBRA is designed to move through the fine dust, or regolith, of the lunar surface to probe the landscape for interesting features, including ice and water, hidden in the shadows of deep craters.

“They never could … deploy a robot or a ground vehicle that can sort of negotiate the environment and get to the bottom of these craters and look for ice water content,” said professor Alireza Ramezani, who advises the COBRA team and has worked with robotic designs that mimic the movements of real organisms, something Caetano said formed a baseline for their research.

“With him building a robot dog and robot bat, we knew we wanted to have some ‘bioinspiration’ in our project,” Caetano said.

Using biology as the driving force behind COBRA’s design was also something Ramezani hoped would win over judges in NASA’s competition.

“Our robot sort of tumbled 80 to 90 feet (24-27 meters) down this hill and that … impressed the judges,” he told VOA. “We did this with minimum energy consumption and within, like, 10 or 15 seconds.”

Caetano said COBRA weighs about 7 kilograms, “so the fact that COBRA is super light brings a benefit to it, as well.”

Ramezani added that COBRA is also cost-effective.

“If you want to have a space-worthy platform, it’s going to be in the order of $100,000 to $200,000. You can have many of these systems tumbling down these craters,” he said.

The Northeastern team’s successful COBRA test put to rest any lingering skepticism, sending them to the top of NASA’s 2022 BIG Idea competition and hopefully — in the not-too-distant future — to the top of NASA’s Space Launch System on its way to the moon.

“I’m not saying this, our judges said this. It’s potentially going to transform the way future space exploration systems look like,” said Ramezani. “They are even talking to some of our partners to see if we can increase technology readiness of the system, make it space worthy, and deploy it to the moon.”

Which is why, despite his impending graduation later this year, Caetano plans to continue developing COBRA alongside his teammates.

“Because we brought it to life together, the idea of just fully abandoning it at graduation probably doesn’t appeal to most of us,” Caetano said. “In some way or another, we still want to be involved in the project, in making sure that … we are still the ones who put it on the moon at some point.”

That could happen as soon as 2025, the year NASA hopes to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the Artemis program.

Rescuers Search for Earthquake Survivors in Turkey, Syria as Death Toll Nears 12,000  

Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria raced against time Wednesday and a lack of equipment to find survivors buried in the rubble of buildings toppled by powerful earthquakes that struck the region Monday and left about 12,000 people dead.

The rescue effort in Turkey involved 96,000 personnel, the country’s emergency management agency said Wednesday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the area near the quake’s epicenter close to the city of Gaziantep and the Turkey-Syria border.

He faced the mounting frustration of survivors looking for their loved ones or for aid from the government by acknowledging problems with the emergency response to Monday’s 7.8 magnitude quake.

“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Erdogan said. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He pointed to the winter weather and how the earthquake had destroyed the runway at Hatay’s airport as things that disrupted the response.

In Hatay, Erdal Kahilogullari, whose wife and two children were under the rubble of a collapsed building, shared his frustration with VOA’s Turkish Service. More than 3,300 people died in Hatay province.

“OK, everyone is a human being. But aren’t 80 provinces enough? How can 80 provinces not help 10 provinces? Being 10 hours late is OK, but being late for two days to help? We don’t even have water,” he said, referring to the provinces of Turkey.

Rescuers were still finding people alive but were unable to reach them without the needed equipment and expertise, even as they could hear cries for help.

“I hear voices saying, ‘Daddy, save me,’” Kahilogullari said. “How could I not struggle here? I am desperate. I cannot do anything. I’m just waiting here. Walk there, come back here.”

Search sites also have been the scene of some celebrations as people are found alive and taken away for medical care. But uncovering the rubble has also meant frequent increases in the number of casualties.

Officials in Turkey said at least 8,574 people were killed and more than 38,000 others were injured.

In Syria, where there have been similar complaints of slow response, at least 2,530 have died, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue groups.

The earthquake is now the world’s deadliest seismic event since a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan.

Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning and a three-month state of emergency in 10 provinces directly affected by the quake.

Search teams and emergency aid from throughout the world poured into Turkey and Syria as rescue workers dug through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors. Some voices that had been crying out for help fell silent.

“We could hear their voices, they were calling for help,” said Ali Silo, whose two relatives could not be saved in the Turkish town of Nurdagi.

More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, and about 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels. They huddled in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers, while others spent the night outside wrapped in blankets gathering around fires.

The earthquake struck a region enveloped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.

‘A crisis on top of a crisis’

The U.N. resident coordinator for Syria said Wednesday that 10.9 million people have been affected across the country by the earthquake. Before the quake, there were already 15.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance in the country, due to more than a decade of civil war.

“So, it’s a crisis on top of a crisis,” El-Mostafa Benlamlih told reporters at the United Nations in New York during a video briefing from Damascus.

He said in Aleppo alone, they estimate a third of homes have been damaged or destroyed, displacing around 100,000 people.

Humanitarians are coping with a shortage of fuel for their operations, as well as freezing temperatures and damaged roads and infrastructure.

The World Food Program has prepositioned food stocks in the area, which Benlamlih said are enough to feed 100,000 people for one week. The World Health Organization has two planes with medical supplies coming from its hub in Dubai to Damascus. But more supplies need to come in urgently.

The World Food Program appealed Wednesday for $46 million to provide food assistance to a half-million people in Turkey and Syria for the next three to four months.

Additionally, the main road the United Nations uses to get aid from Gaziantep in Turkey to the transshipment point into northwest Syria was damaged in the quake and closed.

“So we couldn’t send any relief items; we were looking for alternative routes,” Muhannad Hadi, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told reporters from Amman, Jordan. He said they had word Wednesday that the road is opening, and they could start delivering some supplies as early as Thursday.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

US Two-Way Trade Rose in 2022, New Data Show

The United States’ two-way trade with other nations spiked in 2022, new federal data show, including trade with China despite increasing friction between the world’s two largest economies.

Even while posting record-high exports to 73 countries in 2022, the U.S. still ran a trade deficit of $1.19 trillion, up $101 billion from 2021, the U.S. Commerce Department said this week. The deficit reflected the fact that the U.S. also recorded record-high imports from 90 countries.

U.S. imports from China reached $537 billion in 2022 compared with $505 billion the previous year. The U.S. sold a record-high $154 billion in exports to the Chinese market, up slightly from $151 billion the previous year. The net trade deficit with China for 2022 was $383 billion.

The data, released Tuesday, came out just hours before U.S. President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address in which he promised to boost domestic manufacturing, to use only U.S.-made materials for a spate of infrastructure projects, and to remain focused on “winning the competition” against China.

However, what “winning” looks like may be difficult to determine.

Politics versus reality

Relations between the U.S. and China worsened during the past week, after Biden ordered the U.S. military to shoot down what intelligence officials said was a Chinese espionage balloon that had floated across the U.S. Prior to the shoot-down, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a scheduled trip to Beijing.

The balloon incident followed months of rising tensions and calls from many U.S. officials for a “decoupling” of the Chinese and U.S. economies and “reshoring” of key manufacturing to the U.S. But while the Biden administration may be able to use preferential purchasing treatment to shut Chinese construction materials and other goods out of U.S. infrastructure projects, experts said there is little evidence of broader separation between the U.S. and Chinese economies.

“Regardless of the political rhetoric, which is tending towards a kind of rigid and suspicious environment between China and the United States, the practical moves on the ground from a business and commerce perspective show that there is a deep and sustained connection between the Chinese and U.S. economies,” Claire Reade, a senior counsel with the law firm Arnold & Porter and former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs, told VOA.

Mark Kennedy, director of the Wilson Center’s Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition, agreed, saying, “There has not been a broad-based decoupling … and many economists are seeing that there really hasn’t been a significant onshoring or reshoring. There are still strong ties, and to break those ties with China would be both difficult and costly.”

Trade as ‘ballast’

Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, told VOA it’s a good sign that trade between the U.S. and China has been persistently strong despite the imposition of tariffs by both sides and the Biden administration’s recent move to block the sale of cutting-edge microprocessors to China.

“Trade has acted as an important ballast in the relationship between Washington and Beijing in the past, and I think it’s still the case,” he said via email. “Competition is surely defining the contours of the relationship at the moment, and we hope that the relationship doesn’t sour any further as a result.”

“I think, to that point, this new data can be a silver lining,” said Allen. “Even though the United States and China are competing with one another, this last year of data and the growth in U.S. exports to China really shows that we can simultaneously maintain a trading relationship that benefits Americans.”

A delicate balance

Reade said the Biden administration, in its effort to privilege American manufacturers over Chinese firms, will face a difficult challenge. Insulating American companies from non-U.S. rivals could make them less able to compete internationally or could lead to tit-for-tat protectionism against U.S. firms.

At the same time, she said, there is strong evidence that many large Chinese firms, including those that manufacture the kinds of goods used in major infrastructure projects, receive favorable treatment from the Chinese government that insulates them from market pressures, unfairly advantaging them over competitors.

“To the extent the competition is not fair competition, it is also legitimate to not allow destructive price undercutting that decimates legitimate industries,” she said.

US economic strength

Looking beyond the U.S.-China relationship, experts said that much of the explanation for the rising trade deficit has to do with the relative strength of the U.S. economy compared with those of many of its trading partners. A strong dollar makes foreign goods and services more affordable for Americans, while making U.S.-made goods and services more expensive overseas.

“The big takeaway is that when you’re running a high-pressure economy, which the U.S. is, you’re going to import a lot of stuff,” Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told VOA. “And that’s exactly what has happened. You’ve got the unemployment rate down to 3.4% and two job vacancies for every worker unemployed … that really speaks to just high-pressure demand.”

Although China was the largest source of imports to the U.S. in 2022, Canada and Mexico were the United States’ largest two-way trading partners. The countries share lengthy land borders with the U.S. and participate in a three-way free trade agreement. Total U.S.-Canada trade was $794 billion in 2022, and U.S.-Mexico trade was $779 billion.

After Canada, Mexico and China, Japan was the next largest of the United States’ trading partners, with $229 billion in goods trading hands last year.

The U.S. did $903 billion in two-way trade with the nations of the European Union in 2022, with the largest share, $220 billion, between the U.S. and Germany.

Other large two-way trading partners in 2022 were South Korea at $187 billion; the United Kingdom at $141 billion; Vietnam at $139 billion; Taiwan at $136 billion; and India at $133 billion.

Australia to Review Chinese-Made Cameras in Defense Offices

The Australian government will examine surveillance technology used in offices of the defense department, Defense Minister Richard Marles said Thursday, amid reports the Chinese-made cameras installed there raised security risks.

The move comes after Britain in November asked its departments to stop installing Chinese-linked surveillance cameras at sensitive buildings. Some U.S. states have banned vendors and products from several Chinese technology companies.

“This is an issue and … we’re doing an assessment of all the technology for surveillance within the defense (department) and where those particular cameras are found, they are going to be removed,” Marles told ABC Radio in an interview.

Opposition lawmaker James Paterson said Thursday his own audit revealed almost 1,000 units of equipment by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Dahua Technology, two partly state-owned Chinese firms, were installed across more than 250 Australian government offices.

Paterson, the shadow minister for cybersecurity and countering foreign interference, urged the government to urgently come up with a plan to remove all such cameras.

Marles said the issue was significant but “I don’t think we should overstate it.”

Australian media reported on Wednesday that the national war memorial in Canberra would remove several Chinese-made security cameras installed on the premises over concerns of spying.

Hikvision and Dahua Technology did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

Australia and China have been looking to mend diplomatic ties, which soured after Canberra in 2018 banned Huawei from its 5G broadband network. That cooled further after Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

China responded with tariffs on several Australian commodities.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he was not concerned about how Beijing might react to the removal of cameras.

“We act in accordance with Australia’s national interest. We do so transparently and that’s what we will continue to do,” Albanese told reporters.

Zelenskyy Appearance Uncertain at EU Summit

European Union leaders are to meet Thursday for a summit dominated by migration, the economy and, not surprisingly, Ukraine. Reports suggest Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — who arrived in London on Wednesday — may attend the Brussels summit in person.

The EU’s two-day summit comes ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and days after top EU officials held a summit with Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

Besides Western Europe, Ukraine’s leader has made only one other known trip outside his homeland since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; that trip was to Washington in December, where he met with United States President Joe Biden and addressed the U.S. Congress.

Zelenskyy wants several things from the Europeans, including to speed up Ukraine’s bid to join the EU, more weapons ahead of an expected Russian offensive, and more sanctions against Moscow.

Brussels is unlikely to fast-track Kyiv’s membership application. But in Kyiv last week, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen praised Zelenskyy’s commitment to join the bloc.

“I must say I am deeply impressed, and I want to commend you for the preciseness, the quality and the speed at which you deliver,” she said. “This is phenomenal.”

Europeans already have committed billions of dollars in defense and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Brussels is also expected to unveil a 10th sanctions package against Moscow later this month.

zeleMigration is also set to dominate the summit amid a sharp uptick in economic migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Europe this past year. That’s on top of the millions of Ukrainian war refugees.

Today, some EU member states are calling for tougher policies — and fences — against what they call “irregular” migration. Using EU funds for border fences is especially divisive.

“I think migration and asylum policy remains a very tricky issue within the EU — with the EU witnessing its biggest migration and asylum crisis since World War II,” said Pauline Veron, a policy advisor at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, a Netherlands-based think-tank.

Veron said that, even as many Europeans continue welcoming Ukrainian refugees, they are feeling rising angst about migration from Africa and elsewhere.

Ukrainian Refugees in US Grateful, Anxious About Future

Nearly a year ago, tens of thousands of Ukrainians sought refuge in the United States as Russian troops invaded their country. Mike O’Sullivan spoke with two Ukrainian families in California about their lives one year later.

Twitter Down in Turkey as Quake Response Criticism Mounts

Twitter became inaccessible on major Turkish mobile providers on Wednesday as online criticism mounted of the government’s response to this week’s deadly earthquake.

AFP reporters were unable to access the social media network in Turkey. It was still accessible using VPN services that disguise a user’s location.

The social media monitor said Twitter was being restricted “on multiple internet providers in Turkey”.

“Turkey has an extensive history of social media restrictions during national emergencies and safety incidents,” the monitor added.

Turkish police have detained more than a dozen people since Monday’s earthquake over social media posts that criticized how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been dealing with the disaster.

Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor and its aftershocks killed at least 11,200 people in southeastern Turkey and parts of Syria.

Turkish social media have been filled with posts by people complaining about a lack of search and rescue efforts in their provinces.

The Twitter outage came as Erdogan toured two of the hardest-hit Turkish provinces.

Turkish officials released no immediate statements about the service disruption.

But they had issued repeated warnings about spreading misinformation in advance of a crucial May 14 election in which Erdogan will try to extend his two-decade rule.

Farmers Drive Tractors Through Paris in Protest at Pesticide Bans

French farmers drove hundreds of tractors into Paris on Wednesday to protest against pesticide restrictions and other environmental regulations they say are threatening farm production in the European Union’s largest agricultural power.

The action follows an EU court ruling last month that overturned a French policy allowing sugar beet growers to use an insecticide banned by the EU, raising concern of a further decline in beet plantings and of sugar factory closures.

The sugar beet decision has sharpened discontent among farmers over what they see as excessive pesticide curbs that go against government calls to boost food security in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine.

“Our means of production keep being undermined by prohibitions without solutions,” Jerome Despey, secretary general of the FNSEA, France’s main farming union, told Reuters.

“Enough is enough”

The FNSEA and other groups organizing the protest were expecting 500 tractors and 2,000 farmers from the Paris region to participate.

A long procession of tractors, bearing banners saying “Macron is liquidating agriculture” – in reference to French President Emmanuel Macron – or “Save your farmer,” rolled through central Paris to join a gathering at the Invalides monument, near France’s agriculture ministry.

Environmental activists say pesticide residues damage soils and wildlife and they have welcomed the EU ruling against the use of sugar beet seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides that can harm bees.

“Biodiversity, indispensable for life on earth and farming, must not be sacrificed,” anti-pesticide group Generations Futures said in a statement supporting the neonicotinoid ban.

Farmers argue that sugar beet plants do not attract bees and that the ban leaves them exposed to crop disease virus yellows, raising the prospect of lower production and more imports from countries that allow neonicotinoids.

French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau will present a plan to representatives of the sugar beet sector on Thursday, the agriculture ministry said in a statement after Fesneau met farm unions on Wednesday morning.

Sugar beet growers group CGB said the minister had agreed that sugar beet growers would be compensated fully for yield losses this year if there was a severe attack of virus yellows.

“We can’t be satisfied but for now this should let farmers plant and allow other solutions to be found for 2024 and 2025,” Franck Sander, the CGB’s president, told Reuters at the protest. 

Rescue Crews Search for Earthquake Survivors in Turkey, Syria as Death Toll Tops 8,700

Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria raced against the cold Wednesday to find survivors buried in the rubble of buildings toppled by powerful earthquakes that struck the region Monday and left more than 8,700 people dead.       

The rescue effort in Turkey involved 79,000 personnel, the country’s emergency management agency said Wednesday. 


Officials in Turkey said at least 6,234 people were killed and more than 37,000 others were injured. In Syria, there were at least 2,470 deaths, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue groups.    

The epicenter of Monday’s pre-dawn earthquake was near Gaziantep, close to the Turkey-Syria border. 


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning and a three-month state of emergency in 10 provinces directly affected by the quake.    


Erdogan described the earthquake as “unique in the world,” and he thanked Qatar for offering 10,000 container homes for people left homeless.  

Search teams and emergency aid from throughout the world poured into Turkey and Syria as rescue workers dug through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors. Some voices that had been crying out for help fell silent.   


“We could hear their voices, they were calling for help,” said Ali Silo, whose two relatives could not be saved in the Turkish town of Nurdagi.  


More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey alone, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels. They huddled in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers, while others spent the night outside wrapped in blankets gathering around fires.  


Awale Ahmed Darfa, a Somali student in Gaziantep at the epicenter, described his first sensation of the earthquake in an interview with VOA Somali.   

“The situation turned critical very quickly,” he said. “We heard screams, cries and people running. The buildings were shaking as if they were shaken by jinn [evil spirits]. Everyone ran to wherever they felt they would be safe.”             


“We are now outside since we left our homes around 4 a.m.,” he added. “There is a problem being outside — it is rainy, cold, windy, and we are not wearing protective clothing. Outside, everyone is wearing what they were wearing [while] asleep. Some people do not have shoes. They told us we could not go back to the buildings because of the fear [of aftershocks]. That is the disaster here.”         


The earthquake struck a region enveloped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.       


The opposition-held regions in Syria are packed with about 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the fighting. Many of them live in buildings that are already damaged from past bombardments.   

The opposition emergency organization, the White Helmets, has experience pulling people from buildings collapsed by airstrikes. But with calls for help coming from more than 700 places, Mounir al-Mostafa, deputy head of the White Helmets, said they are overwhelmed. They can realistically help in 30 places.   

Residents in Turkey’s western city of Izmir organized a clothing donation campaign to help the victims.         


Emre Demirpolat told VOA’s Turkish Service, “We brought blankets and heaters. We need to be united. … In such bad times, we must support each other. While we can’t stay outside for 10 minutes in this cold, people there shudder to think about the loss of their homes and when they will get to go to a warm place.”          


In other parts of Turkey, residents struggled to find transportation to travel to the earthquake-stricken area to see their relatives and loved ones.            


Serdar Özdemir, an Ankara resident, told VOA’s Turkish service he was finally able to get a bus ticket to go to the city of Malatya, after not being able to find a car rental.            


“I can’t rent a car. There’s no way to go. I have been looking for a car here for hours.”              


Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.        

In 1999, more than 17,000 people were killed when a 7.4 magnitude earthquake — the worst to hit Turkey in decades — struck near Duzce, in the northwest of the country.                   

Last October, a magnitude 7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 116 people and injuring more than 1,000. All but two of the victims were in Izmir.         

VOA’s Turkish and Somali services contributed to this report.            


Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.