Mississippi River nears historic lows, shipping at risk

(Reuters) – The drought-drained Mississippi River will rise slightly later this week between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, but later continue its decline toward historic lows, according to a National Weather Service forecast.

Low water, due to the worst U.S. drought since 1956, has already impeded the flow of billions of dollars worth of grain, coal, fertilizer and other commodities between the central United States and shipping terminals at the Gulf of Mexico.

A further drop in river levels could halt commercial shipping traffic entirely by this weekend, the American Waterways Operators and the Waterways Council Inc said in a statement on Wednesday.

Last week, the council said the river along the Cairo-St. Louis stretch would be too low for navigation by January 7 but on Wednesday it said shipping may come to a halt between January 5 and 15.

A shutdown could affect more than 8,000 jobs, cost $ 54 million in wages and benefits, and halt the movement of 7.2 million tons of commodities valued at $ 2.8 billion, the two industry groups said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is spearheading a project to remove river-bottom rock that could impede shipping if the river becomes too shallow, remains optimistic that the nine-foot-deep channel, which most commercial vessels need, can be maintained.

Forecasts for warmer weather, which would limit river-choking ice from forming, and the potential for rain next week bolstered that outlook.

The Corps is removing the most threatening rock pinnacles near the Illinois towns of Grand Tower and Thebes first, hoping to deepen the shipping channel by about two feet by mid-January, just before the river was forecast to hit critically low levels.

“The Corps rock removal contractors are making excellent progress in removing the rock obstructions from the primary area of concern,” said Major General John Peabody, the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division Commander.

“We believe we will deepen the channel ahead of the worst-case river stage scenario, and I remain confident that navigation will continue,” he said.

The Corps has also been dredging various soft-bottom sections of the river nearly round-the-clock for months to maintain a deep enough shipping channel. The vast majority of commercial vessels need a depth of at least nine feet so shippers are closely monitoring river gauges and forecasts.

The Mississippi River gauge at Thebes fell from a reading of 4.45 feet late last week to four feet late on Wednesday. It was forecast to rise to 4.2 feet on Friday morning before slipping to 3.2 feet by next Wednesday, the lowest level at Thebes since 1988 and the second lowest on record.

Gauge readings do not reflect the actual depth of the river at a certain location because the gauges are fixed and the river’s bottom is steadily changing with the current. But they do aid navigation as a shorter term reference point.

The Army Corps has said once the Thebes gauge reads 2 feet, boats with a nine-foot draft, or distance between the water’s surface and the lowest point of the vessel, would be at risk of hitting rock pinnacles there.

“We lose 9 feet of depth for the navigation at about 2 feet on the Thebes gauge,” said Army Corps spokesman Mike Petersen. “That’s when those rocks become an issue.”

(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bob Burgdorfer)

Weather News Headlines – Yahoo! News

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Look beyond the fiscal cliff


  • Dean Baker: Budget deficit is not the only top issue in our national economic policy

  • Baker: Fiscal cliff debate has been a distraction of the bigger problem of a downturn

  • He says fears of big deficits are preventing us from boosting the economy more

  • Baker: Given the economy's weakness, the government has to run big deficits

Editor's note: Dean Baker, an economist, is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive economic policy organization. He is author of "The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive."

(CNN) -- We have just passed into the new year, and the distractions created by the debate over the fiscal cliff appear to be behind us. Maybe.

That debate has been part of a larger distraction -- the concern over budget deficits at a time when by far the country's most important problem remains the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. The obsession with budget deficits is especially absurd because the enormous deficits of recent years are entirely the result of the economic downturn.

In spite of this, the leadership of both parties has elevated the budget deficit to be the top and virtually only issue in national economic policy. This means ignoring the downturn that continues to cause enormous amount of unnecessary suffering for tens of millions of people.

Dean Baker

Dean Baker

But fears of big deficits are preventing us from giving the same sort of boost to the economy that got us out of the Great Depression. The explanation is simple: profits have returned to prerecession levels.

Opinion: Cliff deal hollow victory for American people

This means that from the standpoint of the people who own and run American businesses, everything is pretty much fine. Moreover, they see the deficits created by the downturn as providing an opportunity to go after Social Security and Medicare.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan organization involving many of the country's richest and most powerful CEOs, sets out to do just that. It has become standard practice in Washington for Wall Street types and other wealthy interests to finance groups to push their agenda.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt involves the CEOs themselves directly stepping up to the plate and pushing the case for cutting Social Security and Medicare as well as lowering the corporate income tax rate.

It's clear what's going on here. We don't need any conspiracy theories.

iReport: What's your message for Washington?

CEOs from both political parties have openly come together to demand cuts in Social Security and Medicare, two programs that enjoy massive political support across the political spectrum. The wealthy are joining hands without regard to political affiliation to cut benefits that enjoy broad bipartisan support among everyone who is not rich.

President Barack Obama has an opportunity to show real leadership. He should explain to the public the basic facts that all budget experts know: We do not have a chronic deficit problem. The big deficits are the result of collapsed economy. The priority of the president and Congress must be to put people back to work and bring the economy back up to speed.

Fiscal cliff deal: 5 things to know

When the housing bubble burst, annual spending on residential construction fell back by more than 4% of GDP, which is $600 billion in today's economy. Similarly, consumption plunged as people drastically curtailed their spending in response to the loss of $8 trillion in housing bubble generated equity.

There is no easy way for the private sector to replace this demand. Businesses don't invest unless they see demand for their products, regardless of how much love we might shower on the "job creators." In fact, if anything, investment is surprisingly strong give the large amount of excess capacity in the economy. Measured as a share of GDP, investment in equipment and software is almost back to its prerecession level. It is hard to envision investment getting much higher, absent a major boost in demand from some other sector.

This is why it is necessary for the government to run large deficits. Ideally, the money would be spent in areas that will make us richer in the future: Education, infrastructure, research and development in clean energy, etc. There is just no way around a large role for the government given the economy's current weakness.

Big issues still pending

Obama needs to explain this simple story to the country. The rich of both parties will hate him for going down this route. They will use their powers to denounce him. But the American people support Social Security and Medicare, and they support an economy that creates jobs for ordinary workers.

Obama needs the courage to tell the truth.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Baker.

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Chicago man charged in estranged wife's slaying in Munster

A Chicago man with a history of domestic violence arrests has been charged with the murder of his estranged wife in Munster, Ind., early New Year’s Day, authorities said.

Margarito Valdivia, 44, of the 10800 block of South Troy Street, is being held without bail in the slaying of his estranged wife, Erica Valdivia, 33, early on Tuesday, Munster Police said in a news release this afternoon. The attack at a home in the 800 block of Boxwood Drive in Munster also injured Erica Valdivia’s boyfriend, police said.

Erica Valdivia, whom the Lake County coroner’s office said suffered blunt force trauma to the head in an apparent homicide, had been separated from her husband for about four months, according to police.

Margarito Valdivia is believed to have driven to the Boxwood Drive home early Tuesday, gone in and confronted his wife and her boyfriend, police said. He hit the boyfriend in the head “numerous times” as he drove the boyfriend from the home, police said in the release.

Once the boyfriend was outside, Margarito Valdivia went back into the home and began beating his wife, police said.

Police were called to the Boxwood Drive home about 5:45 a.m. Tuesday and found the boyfriend outside with a severe cut to the head. Officers tried to go into the house, but were at first unable to, as Margarito Valdivia had barricaded himself inside. After a SWAT team was called, police sent a remote-controlled robot into the home, and he surrendered.

Police entered the home and found Erica Valdivia lying in a bathroom, with “major trauma” to the head, including her face, police said. She was taken to Community Hospital in Munster, where she was declared dead at 10:04 a.m. Tuesday, according to the coroner’s office.

The Lake County, Ind., prosecutor’s office charged Margarito Valdivia with murder and felony battery today, police said. Court information was not immediately available, but he was being held without bail in Lake County Jail.

Court records show that Margarito Valdivia has Cook County arrests dating back to 1990, when he was arrested on a domestic violence charge and an order of protection was lodged against him. The charges were later dropped. In 1994, he was charged with domestic battery and resisting arrest and was sentenced to a year’s probation after being found guilty of the resisting arrest charge, according to court records.

In 1997, Margarito Valdivia was charged with criminal damage and having a firearm without a gun owner’s permit, and given two years court supervision following a guilty plea. A 2000 domestic battery charge was dropped, but in August 2012 he was found guilty of battery after an attack July 23 in the 9800 block of South Commercial Avenue and sentenced to a year’s conditional discharge, records show.

At the time of the battery arrest, he was still living at the same home in the 10600 block of South Avenue N that the coroner’s office listed as Erica Valdivia’s home address.


Twitter: @ltaford

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Central African Republic rebels halt advance, agree to peace talks

DAMARA, Central African Republic (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops.

The Seleka rebels had pushed to within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozize, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.

Their announcement on Wednesday gave the leader only a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.

"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in (Gabon's capital) Libreville for a political solution," said Seleka spokesman Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.

"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozize," he said.

Bozize on Wednesday sacked his Army Chief of Staff and took over the defense minister's role from his son, Jean Francis Bozize, according to a decree read on national radio, a day after publicly criticizing the military for failing to repel the rebels.

The advance by Seleka, an alliance of mostly northeastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions - and the most serious since the Chad-backed insurgency that swept Bozize to power in 2003.

Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on January 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.

Central African Republic is one of the least developed countries in the world despite its deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines the country's Bakouma uranium deposit - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.


News of the rebel halt eased tension in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.

"They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that's great news for us," said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city.

ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.

Gabonese General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 km (45 miles) north of Bangui and close to the rebel front.

"Damara is a red line not to be crossed ... Damara is in our control and Bangui is secure," he told Reuters. "If the rebellion decides to approach Damara, they know they will encounter a force that will react."

Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenade launchers and truck-mounted machineguns had taken up positions across the town, which was otherwise nearly-abandoned.

Some of the fighters wore turbans that covered their faces and had charms strung around their necks and arms meant to protect them against enemy bullets.

Chad's President Idriss Deby, one of Bozize's closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they approached the town.

Chad provided training and equipment to the rebellion that brought Bozize to power by ousting then-president Ange Felix Patasse, who Chad accused of supporting Chadian dissidents.

Chad is also keen to keep a lid on instability in the territory close to its main oil export pipeline and has stepped in to defend Bozize against insurgents in the past.

A CAR government minister told Reuters the foreign troop presence strengthened Bozize's bargaining position ahead of the Libreville peace talks.

"The rebels are now in a position of weakness," the minister said, asking not to be named. "They should therefore stop imposing conditions like the departure of the president."

Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.

France has a 600-strong force in CAR to defend about 1,200 of its citizens who live there.

Paris used air strikes to defend Bozize against a rebellion in 2006. But French President Francois Hollande turned down a request for more help, saying the days of intervening in other countries' affairs were over.

(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui and Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Janet Lawrence)

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Asia stocks take off as U.S. fiscal cliff crisis ends

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Asian stocks rose nearly two percent to hit a five-month high and the dollar fell as both houses of Congress passed a bill to end the "fiscal cliff" crisis that threatened a U.S. recession and roiled world financial markets.

European markets were set to rally on the news, with spreadbetters expecting London's FTSE <.ftse> to rise about 1 percent and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> to open up 0.5 percent.

The Congress approved extending lower Bush-era tax rates to all but the nation's wealthiest households in a budget deal that stopped automatic implementation of $600 billion in spending cuts and tax increases.

The bill's passage in Congress allayed earlier concerns over complaints from a number of Republicans that spending cuts were still not adequately addressed.

The temporary reprieve that the deal offers the U.S. economy also sets up Wall Street for a strong start to trading which resumes later in the day.

Asian stock markets cheered the developments as a major risk for investors, namely a slump in the global economy, appeared to have receded for now.

"This is great news for global growth and explains why shares and other growth-related assets such as the Australian dollar are up strongly today," said Shane Oliver, strategist at AMP Capital.

Australian shares <.axjo> rose to a 19-month high while the Aussie dollar jumped to 1.4082.

The MSCI Asia Pacific ex-Japan index of stocks <.miapj0000pus> rose 1.9 percent. Chinese shares in Hong Kong <.hsce> jumped 3 percent as last month's rally spilled over into the new year with stocks closely linked to China's economy such as steel and cement posting the biggest gains.

In South Korea, where data showed manufacturing activity rose for the first time in seven months in December, the KOSPI index <.ks11> was up 1.6 percent led by a 3.6 percent jump in smartphone giant Samsung Electronics .

"The index is riding high on the U.S. fiscal deal. This upward momentum will last a couple of weeks, after which there will be a reality check due to the unresolved issue of the spending cuts and debt ceiling," said Cho Tae-hoon, an analyst at Samsung Securities.

Singapore <.ftsti> was the best-performing market in South East Asia rising 1.2 percent after data showed the city-state dodged an expected economic recession in the last three months of 2012.


Asian stocks outside Japan rose nearly 20 percent last year as a combination of improving economic data from China, easing worries about a euro zone blow-up, and global central bank easing that encouraged investors back into equity markets.

Sakthi Siva, Asia strategist for Credit Suisse, said in a note to clients that 2013 could see similar returns for Asian equities, given a solution to the fiscal crisis.

"As we move into 2013 we retain our bullish bias, and our theme is whether markets could catch up with earnings," said Siva, adding that markets in China and India could offer the most upside given the mismatch between index levels and earnings expectations.

Risky assets across the board got a lift with crude oil futures up 1.1 percent and copper futures in London jumping 1.7 percent.

The euro rose to $1.3261 against the U.S. dollar.

The safe-haven U.S. dollar edged lower, falling 0.4 percent against a basket of major currencies <.dxy>.

The Japanese yen continued its slide as investors wagered the Bank of Japan would have to take ever-more aggressive easing steps to support the economy and satisfy the new government.

The yen fell to 87.17 against the dollar to its weakest level since July 2010.

The Japanese currency also dropped to depths not seen in more than four years against the Australian and New Zealand dollars.

(Additional reporting by Wayne Cole in SYDNEY, Masayuki Kitano in SINGAPORE and Somang Yang in SEOUL; Editing by Eric Meijer)

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Stanford holds off Wisconsin 20-14 in Rose Bowl

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Shayne Skov and Zach Ertz believe every game in Stanford's improbable football renaissance led the Cardinal to midfield at the Rose Bowl.

That's where Usua Amanam made the interception that stopped Wisconsin's final drive with 2:30 to play in a grind-it-out game. That's where Kevin Hogan grinned broadly as he took the final snap on Stanford's first Rose Bowl victory in 40 years.

And it's the spot where the once-struggling team from a school better known for brains than brawn raised the West Coast's most coveted trophy after a 20-14 victory over the Badgers on Tuesday night.

"There's a sense of accomplishment, because we got somewhere we hadn't been yet," said Skov, who made eight tackles while leading Stanford's second-half shutout. "If you looked at our goals at the beginning of the season, this was on top of the list, and we got it done. We're extremely satisfied."

Stepfan Taylor rushed for 89 yards and an early touchdown, while Hogan passed for 123 yards, but Stanford (12-2) won the 99th Rose Bowl with a shutdown effort by its defense. Although Stanford didn't score many style points against the Badgers, the Cardinal could celebrate because they didn't let Wisconsin score any points at all after halftime, holding the Badgers to 82 yards.

After winning the Orange Bowl two years ago and losing the Fiesta Bowl in overtime last season, Stanford earned its first conference title and its first trip to the Granddaddy of Them All in 13 years, which is what most Pac-12 players really want.

"We've been in BCS games the past two years, but neither of those mean as much as this one did," said Ertz, the tight end who had three catches for 61 yards. "This is the one we play for every year. It shows Stanford is here to stay."

The Cardinal finished with 12 victories for just the second time in school history — and the second time in the last three years during this surge begun by Andrew Luck and coach Jim Harbaugh. Many Pac-12 observers expected a sharp decline at Stanford this season, but coach David Shaw and Hogan achieved something even Harbaugh and Luck couldn't manage.

"We knew this was going to be a battle, and we wouldn't expect it any other way," Shaw said. "We know it's going to be tight, it's going to be close, and we're going to find a way to win. That's the way it's been all year."

Stanford clamped down on the Big Ten champion Badgers (8-6), who lost the Rose Bowl in heartbreaking fashion for the third consecutive season. Montee Ball rushed for 100 yards and his FBS-record 83rd touchdown, but Wisconsin managed only four first downs in that scoreless second half.

With impressive defense of its own, Wisconsin still stayed in position for an upset in the one-game return of Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez, who was back on the Badgers' sideline in his red sweater-vest seven years after hanging up his whistle.

"This group of kids has been through a lot, and they competed extremely hard against a very high-quality team," said Alvarez, who nearly pulled off a stunner while bridging the gap between coaches Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen. "We've played three very good football games (at the Rose Bowl). These guys played hard. In fact, most people would like to get here once. But we just didn't get it done."

Kelsey Young took his only carry 16 yards for a score on Stanford's opening possession, and Taylor scored on the second drive after a big catch by Ertz. Wisconsin kept the Cardinal out of the end zone for the final 51 minutes, holding them to three points in the second half, but Stanford's defense didn't need any more help in the Cardinal's eighth straight victory.

When Bielema abruptly left Wisconsin for Arkansas after winning the Big Ten title game, Alvarez agreed to coach his fourth Rose Bowl before handing off his program to Andersen, who met with Alvarez on the field before the game. But the Badgers' third consecutive January in Pasadena ended in much the same way as the last two: With the offense failing to get the late score the Badgers desperately needed.

"This stings just as much, because we fell extremely short when we had the opportunity to win," Ball said. "We had numerous opportunities to capitalize on big plays, and we fell short. ... This is not the way we want to be remembered. Speaking for the entire senior group, this is not the way we wanted to go out."

Curt Phillips went 10 for 16 for 83 yards passing and that crucial interception for Wisconsin, doing more with 64 yards on the ground. Jordan Fredrick caught his first career TD pass right before halftime, but no Badgers receiver had more than Jared Abbrederis' three catches.

And though Ball became the first player to score touchdowns in three Rose Bowls, the powerful back fell short of Ron Dayne's career Rose Bowl rushing record, swarmed under by waves of tacklers from one of the toughest defenses in the nation — a defense that shut down the top-ranked Ducks in mid-November to pave Stanford's path to Pasadena.

"They're a good football team, but we have a very good defense," Ertz said. "They stopped Oregon when no one said it could be done. That shows the unity we have on this team. We're never going to quit."

Wisconsin was the first five-loss team to make it to Pasadena, losing three overtime games and making the Big Ten title game only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible. The Badgers then steamrolled Nebraska to become the first Big Ten team in three straight Rose Bowls since Michigan in the late 1970s.

With the Rose Bowl filled with fans wearing the schools' near-identical cardinal-and-white gear, Stanford went up 14-0 on Taylor's 3-yard TD run just 8½ minutes in. Wisconsin briefly got rolling behind Ball, who rushed for 296 yards in his first two Rose Bowls.

Stanford stopped James White inside the 1 on fourth down early in the second quarter after a touchdown run by Ball was wiped out by a holding penalty, but Ball scored on the next drive. The Badgers then mounted an 85-yard drive in the waning 2½ minutes of the first half, with Phillips' 38-yard run setting up Fredrick's short TD catch to trim Stanford's halftime lead to 17-14.

After halftime adjustments, both defenses dominated the scoreless third quarter, allowing just three combined first downs.

Wisconsin's personal foul on a fair-catch punt return finally sparked the Cardinal early in the fourth quarter. Stanford got inside the Wisconsin 5 before stalling, and Jordan Williamson's short field goal put the Cardinal up by six points with 4:23 to go.

The Badgers got to midfield, but Phillips threw behind Jacob Pedersen, and Amanam easily made the pick.

"I just happened to be at the right place at the right time," Amanam said. "We were able to kind of seal the game on that one."

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Europe Tackling Big Space Projects in 2013

LONDON — The European Space Agency has some ambitious resolutions for the New Year. The year 2013 will include the agency’s first spaceflight for its newest class of astronauts, the launch of its latest robot cargo ship Albert Einstein, and the development of new rockets and spacecraft, including a reusable space plane and work on NASA’s new Orion spacecraft.

January and February should see agreements and contracts signed for the new rockets, Ariane 5 Mid-Life Evolution (ME) and Ariane 6, and for ESA’s participation in NASA’sOrion space capsule. ESA is providing the service module for the Orion capsule, which NASA plans to use to fly astronauts on future deep-space missions.  

With deadlines in 2014 for the rocket work, and 2017 for an unmanned Orion test flight, ESA officials know 2013 will see lots of activity right from the start.

“The Orion service module funding has been approved, so now the usual work process starts. I think [the NASA-ESA agreement signing] is in January. It should be rather early from what I’ve heard, it is something to be done towards the beginning of the year,” Franco Bonacina, spokesman for ESA’s director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, told SPACE.com. [Meet the European Space Agency (Video)]

Powerhouse for NASA’s Orion

ESA will provide one service module for Orion’s 2017 test launch. The module’s preliminary design review, or PDR, is planned for July 2013. The PDR is a major milestone for spaceflight projects, allowing managers to check a spacecraft’s design progress.

The ESA service module’s previous review, the system design review, occurred in September 2012, and the next major design review is not until 2015. The service module will provide propulsion, avionics, heat control and energy from solar arrays. It will also store water, oxygen and nitrogen for life support.

ESA’s Orion module is being delivered as an in-kind contribution for International Space Station (ISS) operations, for the period 2017 to 2020. The module is expected to cost ESA several hundred million dollars.

Europe’s new rockets

Before the Orion work shifts into gear, a pair of two-year studies is due to begin at the start of 2013 for the agency’s Ariane 5ME and Ariane 6 rockets. This is so ESA can make a decision about the future of its launchers in late 2014.

Operated by the company Arianespace, the workhorse Ariane 5 rocket launches ESA missions and commercial satellites. The rocket launches from the South American territory of French Guiana and is able to launch two spacecraft at a time. It first flew in 1997 and can launch up to 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) into orbit.

The new Ariane 5 version, the Ariane 5ME, has already been in development for many years and it had been planned to be operational from 2016. It will be the same height, excluding the nose cone, and weight as its predecessor, but will be able launch an additional 2,540 pounds (1152 kg) of payload, with a maximum payload of 24,640 pounds (11,176 kg) for geostationary orbits.

The Ariane 5ME will use a new upper stage and rocket engine, the Vinci, and has a larger nose cone. If approved in 2014, the Ariane 5ME could be operational towards the end of this decade.

However, ESA has concluded that it needs a simpler rocket that can launch more frequently with only one payload onboard. This is the planned Ariane 6, which was originally called Next Generation Launcher (NGL).

The Ariane 6 rocket has been the subject of numerous studies that have evaluated NGL versions that either only have solid rocket motors or only liquid fuel engines. According to Bonacina, for Ariane 6, the two year studies will determine, “what shape and configuration it will have and what kind of money will be needed over what timeframe”. Neither Ariane 5ME nor Ariane 6 will launch astronauts.

A decision on Ariane 6 was supposed to take place in 2012, but disagreement between France and Germany, the largest ESA budget contributors, saw a compromise. France was in favor of Ariane 6, while Germany wanted Ariane 5ME to go ahead.

“It was a heavy compromise between Germany and France. They all had their interesting points of view and a solution has been found,” Bonacina said. “The good thing is that Ariane 6 has started and Ariane 5ME continues in parallel.”

In April of this year, ESA expects to hit two rocket milestones. They include second launch of its latest rocket, Vega, which uses solid rocket motors for its first, second and upper stages. The Vega rocket will launch the Earth observation satellite, Proba-V. The V in Proba-V stands for vegetation because the satellite will monitor the Earth’s plant life. [Europe’s Vega Rocket 1st Launch (Photos)]

Then in mid or late April, the latest version of the Ariane 5 — the Ariane 5 ES — is due make its next launch. The Ariane 5 ES has an upper stage whose engine can reignite. This allows it to launch ESA’s robotic Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo ships.

Europe’s ATV spacecraft deliver supplies to the International Space Station and propellant to raise the station’s orbit when needed. The ATV to be launched in April, called Albert Einstein, will be the fourth ESA’s five planned ATV missions to the space station.

Satellites galore

Europe’s other launches in the second half of 2013 include satellites for the European Union’s space-based navigation system, Galileo. The Galileo satellites will be launched by a Russian Soyuz 2 rocket from the Soyuz launch site in French Guiana.

Also launched in the latter half of 2013 by Soyuz rockets will be ESA’s Gaia mission and the Sentinel-1A satellite. The Gaia spacecraft will operate beyond the Moon, over 600,000 miles (965,606 kilometers) from Earth, and its goal is to create the largest and most precise three-dimensional map of the galaxy.

The Sentinel-1A is a polar orbit satellite that uses synthetic aperture radar. It is the first dedicated satellite for the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security constellation, a joint venture between ESA and the European Union. A constellation of two satellites, GMES’ Sentinel-1B is expected to launch in 2015.

An Ariane 5 will also launch Alphasat this year. This high bandwidth telecommunications satellite will provide commercial services and test various communications technologies including lasers.

Europe’s astronauts and robot arm

In May, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will launch ESA’s Italian born astronaut Luca Parmitano from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Parmitano is launching on a six-month mission to the International Space Station and is slated to return to Earth in November.

Parmitano was selected to join ESA’s astronaut corps in May 2009 as one of six candidates. The five others hailed from France, Germany, Italy, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Of those, Parmitano is the first bound for the space station.

The 35-year old former Italian Air Force test pilot will be a flight engineer on the station crew. While Albert Einstein and Parmitano are headed to the orbiting laboratory in 2013, a new robotic arm for the orbiting laboratory will likely slip to 2014.

The station’s new European Robotic Arm, or ERA, will launch on a Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome, ESA’s ERA will be attached to Russia’s multipurpose laboratory module.

The robotic arm consists of two end-effectors, two wrists, two limbs and one elbow joint, together with electronics and cameras. Both end-effectors act as either a hand or the base from which it can operate. ERA will be used in the assembly and servicing of the Russian segment of the station, and its infrared cameras will allow it to carry out inspections of the station’s exterior.

The arm will also be able to transport astronauts, like a cherry picker crane, from one external location to another. This saves time and effort during spacewalk activities. ERA is also compatible with the new Russian airlock, so it can transfer small payloads between the station’s interior and the vacuum of space quickly. This will also reduce the crew’s space walk set-up time and allow ERA to work with astronauts outside the station.

Space plane under development

Like ERA, ESA’s space plane prototype, the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), was to have been launched in 2013. It will now fly on ESA’s Vega rocket in 2014. The IXV vehicle is designed to test re-entry technologies during a suborbital flight launching from French Guiana and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean using parachutes.

ESA has now approved funds for IXV’s possible follow-on, Innovative Space Vehicle (ISV), under the Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe.

The ISV would be Europe’s civilian equivalent of the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a robotic miniature space shuttle that has flown on three missions since 2010. The unmanned European space plane would be much smaller than the Air Force vehicle, however.

Giorgio Tumino, IXV program manager told SPACE.com: “We did not get all what we asked, but enough to go ahead and keep the planning.”

Follow SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook and Google+.

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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13 key stories to watch for in 2013

Among the few virtual certainties of 2013 is the ongoing anguish of Syria and the decline of its president, Bashar al-Assad.


  • Look for more unrest amid power transitions in the Middle East

  • Disputes and economic worries will keep China, Japan, North Korea in the news

  • Europe's economy will stay on a rough road, but the outlook for it is brighter

  • Events are likely to draw attention to cyber warfare and climate change

(CNN) -- Forecasting the major international stories for the year ahead is a time-honored pastime, but the world has a habit of springing surprises. In late 1988, no one was predicting Tiananmen Square or the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the eve of 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan were unimaginable. So with that substantial disclaimer, let's peer into the misty looking glass for 2013.

More turmoil for Syria and its neighbors

If anything can be guaranteed, it is that Syria's gradual and brutal disintegration will continue, sending aftershocks far beyond its borders. Most analysts do not believe that President Bashar al-Assad can hang on for another year. The more capable units of the Syrian armed forces are overstretched; large tracts of north and eastern Syria are beyond the regime's control; the economy is in dire straits; and the war is getting closer to the heart of the capital with every passing week. Russian support for al-Assad, once insistent, is now lukewarm.

Amid the battle, a refugee crisis of epic proportions threatens to become a catastrophe as winter sets in. The United Nations refugee agency says more than 4 million Syrians are in desperate need, most of them in squalid camps on Syria's borders, where tents are no match for the cold and torrential rain. Inside Syria, diseases like tuberculosis are spreading, according to aid agencies, and there is a danger that hunger will become malnutrition in places like Aleppo.

The question is whether the conflict will culminate Tripoli-style, with Damascus overrun by rebel units; or whether a political solution can be found that involves al-Assad's departure and a broadly based transitional government taking his place. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has not been explicit about al-Assad's exit as part of the transition, but during his most recent visit to Damascus, he hinted that it has to be.

2012: The year in pictures


























"Syria and the Syrian people need, want and look forward to real change. And the meaning of this is clear to all," he said.

The international community still seems as far as ever from meaningful military intervention, even as limited as a no fly-zone. Nor is there any sign of concerted diplomacy to push all sides in Syria toward the sort of deal that ended the war in Bosnia. In those days, the United States and Russia were able to find common ground. In Syria, they have yet to do so, and regional actors such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran also have irons in the fire.

Failing an unlikely breakthrough that would bring the regime and its opponents to a Syrian version of the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war, the greatest risk is that a desperate regime may turn to its chemical weapons, troublesome friends (Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey) and seek to export unrest to Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

The Syrian regime has already hinted that it can retaliate against Turkey's support for the rebels -- not by lobbing Scud missiles into Turkey, but by playing the "Kurdish" card. That might involve direct support for the PKK or space for its Syrian ally, the Democratic Union Party. By some estimates, Syrians make up one-third of the PKK's fighting strength.

To the Turkish government, the idea that Syria's Kurds might carve out an autonomous zone and get cozy with Iraq's Kurds is a nightmare in the making. Nearly 800 people have been killed in Turkey since the PKK stepped up its attacks in mid-2011, but with three different sets of elections in Turkey in 2013, a historic bargain between Ankara and the Kurds that make up 18% of Turkey's population looks far from likely.

Many commentators expect Lebanon to become more volatile in 2013 because it duplicates so many of the dynamics at work in Syria. The assassination in October of Lebanese intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan -- as he investigated a pro-Syrian politician accused of obtaining explosives from the Syrian regime -- was an ominous portent.

Victory for the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria would tilt the fragile sectarian balance next door, threatening confrontation between Lebanon's Sunnis and Hezbollah. The emergence of militant Salafist groups like al-Nusra in Syria is already playing into the hands of militants in Lebanon.

Iraq, too, is not immune from Syria's turmoil. Sunni tribes in Anbar and Ramadi provinces would be heartened should Assad be replaced by their brethren across the border. It would give them leverage in an ever more tense relationship with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The poor health of one of the few conciliators in Iraqi politics, President Jalal Talabani, and renewed disputes between Iraq's Kurds and the government over boundaries in the oil-rich north, augur for a troublesome 2013 in Iraq.

More worries about Iran's nuclear program

Syria's predicament will probably feature throughout 2013, as will the behavior of its only friend in the region: Iran. Intelligence sources say Iran continues to supply the Assad regime with money, weapons and expertise; and military officers who defected from the Syrian army say Iranian technicians work in Syria's chemical weapons program. Al-Assad's continued viability is important for Iran, as his only Arab ally. They also share sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which, with its vast supply of rockets and even some ballistic missiles, might be a valuable proxy in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program.

Speaking of which, there are likely to be several more episodes in the behind-closed-doors drama of negotiations on Iran's nuclear sites. Russia is trying to arrange the next round for January. But in public, at least, Iran maintains it has every right to continue enriching uranium for civilian purposes, such as helping in the treatment of more than 1 million Iranians with cancer.

Iran "will not suspend 20% uranium enrichment because of the demands of others," Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said this month.

International experts say the amount of 20% enriched uranium (estimated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in November at 297 pounds) is more than needed for civilian purposes, and the installation of hundreds more centrifuges could cut the time needed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. The question is whether Iran will agree to intrusive inspections that would reassure the international community -- and Israel specifically -- that it can't and won't develop a nuclear weapon.

This raises another question: Will it take bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks -- and the prospect of an end to the crippling sanctions regime -- to find a breakthrough? And will Iran's own presidential election in June change the equation?

For now, Israel appears to be prepared to give negotiation (and sanctions) time to bring Iran to the table. For now.

Egypt to deal with new power, economic troubles

Given the turmoil swirling through the Middle East, Israel could probably do without trying to bomb Iran's nuclear program into submission. Besides Syria and Lebanon, it is already grappling with a very different Egypt, where a once-jailed Islamist leader is now president and Salafist/jihadi groups, especially in undergoverned areas like Sinai, have a lease on life unimaginable in the Mubarak era.

The U.S. has an awkward relationship with President Mohamed Morsy, needing his help in mediating with Hamas in Gaza but concerned that his accumulation of power is fast weakening democracy and by his bouts of anti-Western rhetoric. (He has demanded the release from a U.S. jail of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted of involvement in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.)

The approval of the constitution removes one uncertainty, even if the opposition National Salvation Front says it cements Islamist power. But as much as the result, the turnout -- about one-third of eligible voters -- indicates that Egyptians are tired of turmoil, and more concerned about a deepening economic crisis.

Morsy imposed and then scrapped new taxes, and the long-expected $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund is still not agreed on. Egypt's foreign reserves were down to $15 billion by the end of the year, enough to cover less than three months of imports. Tourism revenues are one-third of what they were before street protests erupted early in 2011. Egypt's crisis in 2013 may be more about its economy than its politics.

Libya threatens to spawn more unrest in North Africa

Libya's revolution, if not as seismic as anything Syria may produce, is still reverberating far and wide. As Moammar Gadhafi's rule crumbled, his regime's weapons found their way into an arms bazaar, turning up in Mali and Sinai, even being intercepted off the Lebanese coast.

The Libyan government, such as it is, seems no closer to stamping its authority on the country, with Islamist brigades holding sway in the east, tribal unrest in the Sahara and militias engaged in turf wars. The danger is that Libya, a vast country where civic institutions were stifled for four decades, will become the incubator for a new generation of jihadists, able to spread their influence throughout the Sahel. They will have plenty of room and very little in the way of opposition from security forces.

The emergence of the Islamist group Ansar Dine in Mali is just one example. In this traditionally moderate Muslim country, Ansar's fighters and Tuareg rebels have ejected government forces from an area of northern Mali the size of Spain and begun implementing Sharia law, amputations and floggings included. Foreign fighters have begun arriving to join the latest front in global jihad; and terrorism analysts are seeing signs that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria are beginning to work together.

There are plans for an international force to help Mali's depleted military take back the north, but one European envoy said it was unlikely to materialize before (wait for it) ... September 2013. Some terrorism analysts see North Africa as becoming the next destination of choice for international jihad, as brigades and camps sprout across a vast area of desert.

A bumpy troop transition for Afghanistan

The U.S. and its allies want to prevent Afghanistan from becoming another haven for terror groups. As the troop drawdown gathers pace, 2013 will be a critical year in standing up Afghan security forces (the numbers are there, their competence unproven), improving civil institutions and working toward a post-Karzai succession.

In November, the International Crisis Group said the outlook was far from assuring.

"Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections (in Afghanistan in 2014) could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse. Time is running out," the group said.

Critics have also voiced concerns that the publicly announced date of 2014 for withdrawing combat forces only lets the Taliban know how long they must hold out before taking on the Kabul government.

U.S. officials insist the word is "transitioning" rather than "withdrawal," but the shape and role of any military presence in 2014 and beyond are yet to be settled. Let's just say the United States continues to build up and integrate its special operations forces.

The other part of the puzzle is whether the 'good' Taliban can be coaxed into negotiations, and whether Pakistan, which has considerable influence over the Taliban leadership, will play honest broker.

Private meetings in Paris before Christmas that involved Taliban envoys and Afghan officials ended with positive vibes, with the Taliban suggesting they were open to working with other political groups and would not resist girls' education. There was also renewed discussion about opening a Taliban office in Qatar, but we've been here before. The Taliban are riven by internal dissent and may be talking the talk while allowing facts on the ground to work to their advantage.

Where will North Korea turn its focus?

On the subject of nuclear states that the U.S.-wishes-were-not, the succession in North Korea has provided no sign that the regime is ready to restrain its ambitious program to test nuclear devices and the means to deliver them.

Back in May 2012, Peter Brookes of the American Foreign Policy Council said that "North Korea is a wild card -- and a dangerous one at that." He predicted that the inexperienced Kim Jong Un would want to appear "large and in charge," for internal and external consumption. In December, Pyongyang launched a long-range ballistic missile -- one that South Korean scientists later said had the range to reach the U.S. West Coast. Unlike the failure of the previous missile launch in 2009, it managed to put a satellite into orbit.

The last two such launches have been followed by nuclear weapons tests -- in 2006 and 2009. Recent satellite images of the weapons test site analyzed by the group 38 North show continued activity there.

So the decision becomes a political one. Does Kim continue to appear "large and in charge" by ordering another test? Or have the extensive reshuffles and demotions of the past year already consolidated his position, allowing him to focus on the country's dire economic situation?

China-Japan island dispute to simmer

It's been a while since East Asia has thrown up multiple security challenges, but suddenly North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are not the only concern in the region. There's growing rancor between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, which may be aggravated by the return to power in Japan of Shinzo Abe as prime minister.

Abe has long been concerned that Japan is vulnerable to China's growing power and its willingness to project that power. Throughout 2012, Japan and China were locked in a war of words over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, with fishing and Coast Guard boats deployed to support claims of sovereignty.

In the days before Japanese went to the polls, Beijing also sent a surveillance plane over the area, marking the first time since 1958, according to Japanese officials, that Bejing had intruded into "Japanese airspace." Japan scrambled F-15 jets in response.

The islands are uninhabited, but the seas around them may be rich in oil and gas. There is also a Falklands factor at play here. Not giving in to the other side is a matter of national pride. There's plenty of history between China and Japan -- not much of it good.

As China has built up its ability to project military power, Japan's navy has also expanded. Even a low-level incident could lead to an escalation. And as the islands are currently administered by Japan, the U.S. would have an obligation to help the Japanese defend them.

Few analysts expect conflict to erupt, and both sides have plenty to lose. For Japan, China is a critical market, but Japanese investment there has fallen sharply in the past year. Just one in a raft of problems for Abe. His prescription for dragging Japan out of its fourth recession since 2000 is a vast stimulus program to fund construction and other public works and a looser monetary policy.

The trouble is that Japan's debt is already about 240% of its GDP, a much higher ratio than even Greece. And Japan's banks hold a huge amount of that debt. Add a shrinking and aging population, and at some point the markets might decide that the yield on Japan's 10-year sovereign bond ought to be higher than the current 0.77%.

Economic uncertainty in U.S., growth in China

So the world's third-largest economy may not help much in reviving global growth, which in 2012 was an anemic 2.2%, according to United Nations data. The parts of Europe not mired in recession hover close to it, and growth in India and Brazil has weakened. Which leaves the U.S. and China.

At the time of writing, the White House and congressional leadership are still peering over the fiscal cliff. Should they lose their footing, the Congressional Budget Office expects the arbitrary spending cuts and tax increases to be triggered will push the economy into recession and send unemployment above 9%.

A stopgap measure, rather than a long-term foundation for reducing the federal deficit, looks politically more likely. But to companies looking for predictable economic policy, it may not be enough to unlock billions in investment. Why spend heavily if there's a recession around the corner, or if another fight looms over raising the federal debt ceiling?

In September, Moody's said it would downgrade the U.S. sovereign rating from its "AAA" rating without "specific policies that produce a stabilization and then downward trend in the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the medium term." In other words, it wants action beyond kicking the proverbial can.

Should the cliff be dodged, most forecasts see the U.S. economy expanding by about 2% in 2013. That's not enough to make up for stagnation elsewhere, so a great deal depends on China avoiding the proverbial hard landing.

Until now, Chinese growth has been powered by exports and infrastructure spending, but there are signs that China's maturing middle class is also becoming an economic force to be reckoned with. Consultants PwC expect retail sales in China to increase by 10.5% next year -- with China overtaking the U.S. as the world's largest retail market by 2016.

Europe's economic outlook a little better

No one expects Europe to become an economic powerhouse in 2013, but at least the horizon looks a little less dark than it did a year ago. The "PIGS' " (Portugal, Ireland/Italy, Greece, Spain) borrowing costs have eased; there is at least rhetorical progress toward a new economic and fiscal union; and the European Central Bank has talked tough on defending the Eurozone.

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, fended off the dragons with the declaration in July that "Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough."

Draghi has promised the bank has unlimited liquidity to buy sovereign debt, as long as governments (most likely Spain) submit to reforms designed to balance their budgets. But in 2013, the markets will want more than brave talk, including real progress toward banking and fiscal union that will leave behind what Draghi likes to call Europe's "fairy world" of unsustainable debt and collapsing banks. Nothing can be done without the say-so of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, renowned for a step-by-step approach that's likely to be even more cautious in a year when she faces re-election.

Elections in Italy in February may be more important -- pitching technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti against the maverick he replaced, 76-year old Silvio Berlusconi. After the collapse of Berlusconi's coalition 13 months ago, Monti reined in spending, raised the retirement age and raised taxes to bring Italy back from the brink of insolvency. Now he will lead a coalition of centrist parties into the election. But polls suggest that Italians are tired of Monti's austerity program, and Berlusconi plans a populist campaign against the man he calls "Germano-centric."

The other tripwire in Europe may be Greece. More cuts in spending -- required to qualify for an EU/IMF bailout -- are likely to deepen an already savage recession, threatening more social unrest and the future of a fragile coalition. A 'Grexit' from the eurozone is still possible, and that's according to the Greek finance minister, Yannis Stournaras.

Expect to see more evidence of climate change

Hurricane Sandy, which struck the U.S. East Coast in November, was the latest indicator of changing and more severe weather patterns. Even if not repeated in 2013, extreme weather is beginning to have an effect -- on where people live, on politicians and on the insurance industry.

After Sandy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that after "the last few years, I don't think anyone can sit back anymore and say, 'Well, I'm shocked at that weather pattern.' " The storm of the century has become the storm of every decade or so, said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton.

"Climate change will probably increase storm intensity and size simultaneously, resulting in a significant intensification of storm surges," he and colleagues wrote in Nature.

In the U.S., government exposure to storm-related losses in coastal states has risen more than 15-fold since 1990, to $885 billion in 2011, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The Munich RE insurance group says North America has seen higher losses from extreme weather than any other part of the world in recent decades.

"A main loss driver is the concentration of people and assets on the coast combined with high and possibly growing vulnerabilities," it says.

Risk Management Solutions, which models catastrophic risks, recently updated its scenarios, anticipating an increase of 40% in insurance losses on the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Southeast over the next five years, and 25% to 30% for the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. Those calculations were done before Sandy.

Inland, eyes will be trained on the heavens for signs of rain -- after the worst drought in 50 years across the Midwest. Climatologists say that extended periods of drought -- from the U.S. Midwest to Ukraine -- may be "the new normal." Jennifer Francis at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University has shown that a warmer Arctic tends to slow the jet stream, causing it to meander and, in turn, prolong weather patterns. It's called Arctic amplification, and it is probably aggravating drought in the Northwest United States and leading to warmer summers in the Northern Hemisphere, where 2012 was the hottest year on record.

It is a double-edged sword: Warmer temperatures may make it possible to begin cultivating in places like Siberia, but drier weather in traditional breadbaskets would be very disruptive. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that stocks of key cereals have tightened, contributing to volatile world markets. Poor weather in Argentina, the world's second-largest exporter of corn, may compound the problem.

More cyber warfare

What will be the 2013 equivalents of Flame, Gauss and Shamoon? They were some of the most damaging computer viruses of 2012. The size and versatility of Flame was unlike nothing seen before, according to anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab.

Gauss stole online banking information in the Middle East. Then came Shamoon, a virus that wiped the hard drives of about 30,000 computers at the Saudi oil company Aramco, making them useless. The Saudi government declared it an attack on the country's economy; debate continues on whether it was state-sponsored.

Kaspersky predicts that in 2013, we will see "new examples of cyber-warfare operations, increasing targeted attacks on businesses and new, sophisticated mobile threats."

Computer security firm McAfee also expects more malware to be developed to attack mobile devices and apps in 2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is more concerned about highly sophisticated attacks on infrastructure that "could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11."

"We know that foreign cyber actors are probing America's critical infrastructure networks. They are targeting the computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants and those that guide transportation throughout this country," he said in October.

Intellectual property can be stolen, bought or demanded as a quid pro quo for market access. The U.S. intelligence community believes China or Chinese interests are employing all three methods in an effort to close the technology gap.

In the waning days of 2012, the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States said "there is likely a coordinated strategy among one or more foreign governments or companies to acquire U.S. companies involved in research, development, or production of critical technologies."

It did not name the country in its unclassified report but separately noted a growing number of attempts by Chinese entities to buy U.S. companies.

Who will be soccer's next 'perfect machine'?

There's room for two less serious challenges in 2013. One is whether any football team, in Spain or beyond, can beat Barcelona and its inspirational goal machine Lionel Messi, who demolished a record that had stood since 1972 for the number of goals scored in a calendar year. (Before Glasgow Celtic fans start complaining, let's acknowledge their famous win against the Spanish champions in November.)

Despite the ill health of club coach Tito Vilanova, "Barca" sits imperiously at the top of La Liga in Spain and is the favorite to win the world's most prestigious club trophy, the European Champions League, in 2013. AC Milan is its next opponent in a match-up that pits two of Europe's most storied clubs against each other. But as Milan sporting director Umberto Gandini acknowledges, "We face a perfect machine."

Will Gangnam give it up to something sillier?

Finally, can something -- anything -- displace Gangnam Style as the most watched video in YouTube's short history? As of 2:16 p.m. ET on December 26, it had garnered 1,054,969,395 views and an even more alarming 6,351,871 "likes."

Perhaps in 2013 the YouTube audience will be entranced by squirrels playing table tennis, an octopus that spins plates or Cistercian nuns dancing the Macarena. Or maybe Gangnam will get to 2 billion with a duet with Justin Bieber.

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With final vote, Congress resolves 'fiscal cliff' drama

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States averted economic calamity on Tuesday when lawmakers approved a deal to prevent huge tax hikes and spending cuts that would have pushed the world's largest economy off a "fiscal cliff" and into recession.

The agreement hands a clear victory to President Barack Obama, who won re-election on a promise to address budget woes in part by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. His Republican antagonists were forced to vote against a core tenet of their anti-tax conservative faith.

The deal also resolves, for now, the question of whether Washington can overcome deep ideological differences to avoid harming an economy that is only now beginning to pick up steam after the deepest recession in 80 years.

Consumers, businesses and financial markets have been rattled by the months of budget brinkmanship. The crisis ended when dozens of Republicans in the House of Representatives buckled and backed tax hikes approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Asian stocks hit a five-month high and the dollar fell as markets welcomed the news.

While the vote averted immediate pain like tax hikes for almost all U.S. households, it did nothing to resolve other political showdowns on the budget that loom in coming months. Spending cuts of $109 billion in military and domestic programs were only delayed for two months.

Obama urged "a little less drama" when the Congress and White House next address thorny fiscal issues like the government's rapidly mounting $16 trillion debt load.

There was plenty of drama on the first day of 2013 as lawmakers scrambled to avert the "fiscal cliff" of across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts that would have punched a $600 billion hole in the economy this year.

As the rest of the country celebrated New Year's Day with parties and college football games, the Senate stayed up past 2 a.m. on Tuesday and passed the bill by an overwhelming margin of 89 to 8.

When they arrived at the Capitol at noon, House Republicans were forced to decide whether to accept a $620 billion tax hike over 10 years on the wealthiest or shoulder the blame for letting the country slip into budget chaos.

The Republicans mounted an effort to add hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts to the package and spark a confrontation with the Senate.


For a few hours, it looked like Washington would send the country over the fiscal cliff after all, until Republican leaders determined that they did not have the votes for spending cuts.

In the end, they reluctantly approved the Senate bill by a bipartisan vote of 257 to 167 and sent it on to Obama to sign into law.

"We are ensuring that taxes aren't increased on 99 percent of our fellow Americans," said Republican Representative David Dreier of California.

The vote underlined the precarious position of House Speaker John Boehner, who will ask his Republicans to re-elect him speaker on Thursday when a new Congress is sworn in.

Boehner backed the bill but most House Republicans, including his top lieutenants, voted against it.

The speaker had sought to negotiate a "grand bargain" with Obama to overhaul the U.S. tax code and rein in health and retirement programs that are due to balloon in coming decades as the population ages.

But Boehner could not unite his members behind an alternative to Obama's tax measures.

Income tax rates will now rise on families earning more than $450,000 per year and the amount of deductions they can take to lower their tax bill will be limited.

Low temporary rates that have been in place for the past decade will be made permanent for less-affluent taxpayers, along with a range of targeted tax breaks put in place to fight the 2009 economic downturn.

However, workers will see up to $2,000 more taken out of their paychecks annually with the expiration of a temporary payroll tax cut.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the bill will increase budget deficits by nearly $4 trillion over the coming 10 years, compared to the budget savings that would occur if the extreme measures of the cliff were to kick in.

But the measure will actually save $650 billion during that time period when measured against the tax and spending policies that were in effect on Monday, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an independent group that has pushed for more aggressive deficit savings.

(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai, Thomas Ferraro, Mark Felsenthal, David Lawder; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Beech)

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At least 61 crushed to death in Ivory Coast stampede

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - At least 61 people were crushed to death in a stampede after a New Year's Eve fireworks display at a stadium in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan early on Tuesday, officials said.

Witnesses said police had tried to control crowds around the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium following the celebrations, triggering a panic in which scores were trampled.

"The estimate we can give right now is 49 people hospitalized ... and 61 people dead," said the chief of staff of Abidjan's fire department Issa Sacko.

Crying women searched for missing family members outside the stadium on Tuesday morning. The area was covered in patches of dried blood and abandoned shoes.

"My two children came here yesterday. I told them not to come but they didn't listen. They came when I was sleeping. What will I do?" said Assetou Toure, a cleaner.

Sanata Zoure, a market vendor injured in the incident, said New Year's revelers going home after watching the fireworks had been stopped by police near the stadium.

"We were walking with our children and we came upon barricades, and people started falling into each other. We were trampled with our children," she said.

Another witness said police arrived to control the crowd after a mob began chasing a pickpocket.

President Alassane Ouattara called the deaths a national tragedy and said an investigation was under way to find out what happened.

"I hope that we can determine what caused this drama so that we can ensure it never happens again," he said after visiting the injured in hospital.

The country, once a stable economic hub for West Africa, is struggling to recover from a 2011 civil war in which more than 3,000 people were killed.

Ivory Coast's security forces once were among the best trained in the region, but a decade of political turmoil and the 2011 war has left them in disarray.

At least 18 people were killed in another stampede during a football match in an Abidjan stadium in 2009.

(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly and Alain Amontchi; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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