An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Photo: Getty
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Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane probably didn't know what they were aiming at

It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane.

Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donetsk on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard, probably didn’t know what they were shooting at. It appears that the plane was taken down by a Soviet-era Buk missile system, which separatists claimed to have gotten their hands on when they gained control of a Ukrainian air defense base on June 29.

The Buk is a Soviet-era air defense system used by both Ukrainian and Russian defense forces. “When you’re sitting behind a radar screen of one of these things, there’s no way to tell what it is. With the Buk, there’s no way to distinguish between friendly and foe. You’re just going to take a shot at it,” says Raymond Finch, a Eurasian military analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office. “If [the separatists] had reports that the Ukrainians were flying over their airspace, they would shoot. It begs the question of who is sitting behind the trigger. Are they highly trained? My guess is no they are not.”

It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane, the same model that separatists in Luhanskshot down on June 14, killing all 49 people on board, mostly Ukrainian servicemen. This Monday, rebels from the Luhansk People’s Republic shot down another Ukrainian army transport plane.

If a Buk system was in fact used to shoot down the MH17, it must have lacked an automatic disengagement system that equips more sophisticated air defense missiles, designed to prevent deployment against civilian aircrafts. “A lot of these earlier systems don’t have that,” says Finch. “But they’re still highly efficient, especially against a civilian airliner.” 

There are unconfirmed rumors that rebel commander Igor Strelkov haspublicly taken credit for the incident, even though the Donetsk People’s Republic has officially denied responsibility. But it's not hard to connect the dots as to how this might have happened: An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Plus, Nataliya Gumenyuk raises the point that Ukrainian forces haven't been using anti-aircraft missiles in this fight—the separatists don't have planes. 

It’s not the first time that Soviet-era weapons have mistakenly taken down a civilian aircraft. In 1983, the Korean Air flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet SU-15 interceptor after being mistakenly taken for a military aircraft. All 269 people aboard were killed, and at first, the Soviet Union denied wrongdoing. The Soviet pilot who fired at the Korean Air jet told The New York Times, “I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.''

Thursday's incident is even deadlier, and will no doubt ignite an information war over who is in fact responsible for the 295 lost lives. But, Finch says, “With the facilities that we have, we’ll be able to tell who fired it. We’ll be able to say where that missile came from.”

This article originally appeared on the New Republic. Click here.

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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