Cassini set for fiery plunge into Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft will end its 13-year mission to Saturn in mid-September by transmitting data until the final moment before it plunges into the ringed planet’s atmosphere, officials say.

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Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, will make the last of 22 farewell dives between the planet’s rings and surface on September 15. The spacecraft will then burn up as it heads straight into the gas giant’s crushing atmosphere.

Cassini’s final dive will end a mission that provided groundbreaking discoveries that included seasonal changes on Saturn, the moon Titan’s resemblance to a primordial Earth, and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus with ice plumes spouting from its surface.

“The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it’s coming to an end in about two weeks,” Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist, said on a conference call with reporters from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Cassini’s final photo as it heads into Saturn’s atmosphere will likely be of propellers, or gaps in the rings caused by moonlets, said project scientist Linda Spilker.

The spacecraft will provide near real-time data on the atmosphere until it loses contact with Earth on September 15, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

Spilker said Cassini’s latest data on the rings had shown they had a lighter mass than forecast. That suggests they are younger than expected, at about 120 million years, and thus were created after the birth of the solar system, she said.

During its final orbits between the atmosphere and the rings, Cassini also studied Saturn’s atmosphere and took measurements to determine the size of the planet’s rocky core.

Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004. It has provided enough data for almost 4,000 scientific papers.

NSW premier tight-lipped on Piccoli

There’s growing speculation former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli is set to quit parliament, with the premier refusing to quash the rumours.

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News Corp Australia this week reported Mr Piccoli intended to leave politics by the end of the year but the Murray MP has refused to comment publicly on his future.

Gladys Berejiklian has rejected suggestions even more Nationals MPs could follow his lead and make an early departure.

“You’ll have to speak to him about (his future), I share conversations with many of my colleagues and that’s a matter for him,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

“I’m not really worried about anything in that regard. We’re a strong government working day in and day out for the people of NSW.”

Mr Piccoli’s retirement would trigger a fifth by-election in NSW in 2017.

By-elections are looming for the seats of Cootamundra and Blacktown following the resignations of Nationals MP Katrina Hodgkinson and Labor MP John Robertson, respectively.

Gosford and Manly were also re-contested in April with Labor and the Liberals each retaining their respective seats.

As speculation about Mr Piccoli’s future grows, political opponents are beginning to circle his regional seat.

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party is already eyeing Cootamundra and say they’ll contest Mr Piccoli’s seat of Murray if he does indeed retire.

“This is an electorate that we have been watching very closely for some time now,” Shooters and Fishers MLC Robert Borsak said in a statement.

“Adrian Piccoli’s resignation has been a long time coming.”

Mr Piccoli was appointed an honorary professor at the UNSW School of Education in April and is tipped to take up a full-time position there.

A spokesman from Mr Piccoli’s Griffith office said news of his departure came as a surprise to staff.

“It took us unawares,” he told AAP on Wednesday.

“It’s all speculation at the moment.”

China says working with UN on North Korea response

Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke hours after the UN Security Council unanimously condemned Tuesday’s test and Japan’s UN ambassador suggested that a new sanctions declaration could come next.

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Wang said China — which is Pyongyang’s only major ally — was “now working with other members of the Security Council to discuss the recent developments of the situation”.

He added that “based on the consensus of Security Council members, we are going to make a necessary response to the recent test launch of the missile”.

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But Wang did not specify whether a fresh set of sanctions was looming.

“Whether there will be new measures going forward, that should be discussed by the Security Council and consensus needs to be formed,” Wang told a news briefing.

The foreign minister said China opposes the missile launch, which he said violated the non-proliferation treaty.

He urged for a resumption of long-dormant negotiations and urged all parties to avoid actions that “may further escalate tensions”.

“A very important part of Security Council resolutions — which is also a consensus of the Security Council members — is that we should continue to stick to peaceful and diplomatic means to resolve this issue,” Wang said.

He spoke at a briefing ahead of next week’s BRICS summit hosted by China, which also includes Security Council member Russia along with Brazil, India and South Africa.

0:00 UN ambassadors react to UNSC emergency meeting on North Korea Share UN ambassadors react to UNSC emergency meeting on North Korea

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NSW water probe report delayed by a week

An interim report into alleged water rorting in the Murray Darling Basin has been delayed by one week.

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The NSW government appointed the former head of the National Water Commission, Ken Matthews, to investigate the claims last month and his team has since met with almost 40 people and received more than 3000 documents.

The allegations were raised in the ABC’s Four Corners program and included claims a senior official helped irrigators undermine the Murray Darling Basin Plan and whether a major investigation into water management breaches was stymied.

An interim report was due by the end of August but on Wednesday Mr Matthews said both he and the government had agreed on an extension.

The additional time would be used to review the final draft and make sure none of the findings could interfere with subsequent investigations or prejudice legal processes.

“These final checks will allow for the interim report to be released publicly,” Mr Matthews said in a statement.

Department of Industry secretary Simon Smith admitted the delay would cause some concerns and there was a “high level of public interest”.

“We believe it is a better outcome for the public if the extra time allows for maximum possible disclosure of the findings of the investigation,” Mr Smith said.

But the NSW opposition is sceptical of the delay, noting the report will now be released after budget estimates have wrapped up.

Labor water spokesman Chris Minns wants Water Minister Niall Blair to make himself available for a second round of questioning.

“It’s highly convenient for the minister to appear at estimates on Friday and be able to avoid being questioned on industrial-level water theft,” he said in a statement.

Along with Mr Matthews’ probe, the allegations of water theft have been referred to the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir has also expanded his inquiry to include how the federal Department of Agriculture monitors the performance of NSW under a national Murray Darling agreement.

Young girl survives Tasmanian shooting

A fight outside a Woolworths supermarket between two women ended with an 11-year-old girl being shot in the face in a suburban Tasmanian street and a man facing charges.

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Phoenix Newitt was shot while sitting in a car with her mother, uncle and four-year-old cousin on Tuesday evening outside a house in Deloraine, near Launceston.

A 25-year-old man appeared in court on Wednesday afternoon on charges of grievous bodily harm and recklessly discharging a firearm.

Police say Phoenix’s mother and the alleged shooter’s girlfriend were involved in a scuffle at the Woolworths in the hours before the shooting.

“It initially started as a verbal dispute and became physical,” Detective Inspector John King said.

“One lady has received a bite mark and the other has received a cut to her head.”

Phoenix and the three others in the car travelled to Stagg Court where the alleged shooter lives.

Inspector King said the alleged shooter then got in a verbal argument with Phoenix’s uncle.

He fired a rifle at the car from about 50 metres away.

The shot hit the car’s passenger door before ricocheting into Phoenix who was sitting in the back seat.

Fragments lodged in her neck and head and travelled to her heart through her bloodstream.

Family members rushed her to a nearby medical centre before she was taken to Launceston Hospital and then flown to Melbourne for emergency surgery.

Her condition improved to stable on Wednesday morning and her mother is understood to be by her side at The Royal Children’s Hospital.

“It certainly didn’t look good to start with but it’s very, very pleasing to hear that her condition is improving,” Inspector King said.

Investigators are yet to find the gun, believed to a small-calibre rifle.

Phoenix’s uncle, who was in the car at the time, told the ABC the family is shaken.

“She’s a beautiful little girl,” Zack Newitt said.

“She is just one of those kids that everyone loves.”

Neighbours have told The Advocate newspaper they heard a “heap of yelling” before a swarm of police arrived.

Investigators are reviewing CCTV footage from Woolworths and are urging anyone with information to come forward.

The alleged shooter is expected to re-appear in Launceston Magistrates Court on Friday.

Cotchin not bitter on All Australian snub

Former Brownlow medallist Trent Cotchin hasn’t lost a wink of sleep over his All Australian squad snub, instead dreaming of Richmond’s first final against Geelong.

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The Richmond skipper was a notable absentee in the 40-man list released on Monday.

But Cotchin – who averaged almost 24 disposals in 22 games this season – didn’t harbour any ill-will toward selectors.

In fact, the 27-year-old wasn’t even sure his busy schedule would have allowed him to attend Wednesday night’s ceremony.

“I was busy tonight anyway,” Cotchin joked on Wednesday. “It didn’t really faze me too much.”

Ahead of Richmond’s first final since Cotchin infamously chose to kick into the wind against Port Adelaide, the Tigers’ midfielder said he’d have traded an All Australian nod in a heartbeat for a chance at retribution.

“If I sat down at the start of the year and you told me that I’d be playing in a qualifying final … I’d have a big smile on my face,” he told reporters.

“It’s never been about the numbers, it’s never been about the individual awards – it’s about getting the best out of our group and I feel as though we’re in a pretty strong position.”

Despite Richmond securing a top-four finish for the first time in 16 years, unbackable Brownlow favourite Dustin Martin and champion full-back Alex Rance were the only Tigers to make the first cut.

Coach Damien Hardwick said Cotchin’s development as a leader this season made up for his less than “sexy” statistics.

“I obviously watch him a lot more closely than most, and I still maintain that the measure of a player is what you do with the players around you,” Hardwick said.

“I’ve got no doubt that our players jump on his back and he leads from the front – you can’t measure that.”

Meanwhile, Hardwick confirmed hamstrung midfielder Josh Caddy could be put through his paces at the weekend in Richmond’s VFL side as he looks to be declared fit to play against his old side at the MCG next Friday.

Experts outline welfare drug test fears

Welfare recipients forced into drug and alcohol treatment programs under a tough new regime will be taking the places of people who want to be there, a Senate inquiry has heard.

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There are also fears the welfare crackdown could increase crime.

Medical professionals, addiction specialists and community organisations are urging Senate crossbenchers to reject a Turnbull government plan to drug test welfare recipients.

The drug tests – along with the removal of exemptions for welfare obligations based on drug and alcohol dependence and changes to reasonable excuses – are contained in welfare bills examined on Wednesday.

Each of the measures are expected to funnel more people into drug and alcohol treatment services.

Alison Ritter, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, said there was already an enormous unmet demand for substance abuse services.

Australia treats about 200,000 people a year for drug and alcohol issues, while another 200,000 to 500,000 people are seeking treatment.

“Treatment services are already full and clinicians are fully occupied,” she told senators in Sydney.

“All that means is someone else is going to miss out on a treatment place.”

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge on Wednesday rejected criticism of the scheme – describing it as “a trial in every sense of the word” – and argued drug tests were commonplace across society.

The government wants to roll out the drug testing pilot across three trial sites – Mandurah in Western Australia, Logan in Queensland and Canterbury-Bankstown in NSW – affecting about 5000 people.

Anyone who tests positive will be shunted onto cashless welfare cards, while those who fail more than once will be referred to medical professionals for treatment.

The Department of Social Services expects only 120 people across the three sites will be referred on for medical treatment, which could range from counselling sessions to residential rehabilitation.

The department is confident there will be options available for those who need it.

However, it does not know how long existing waiting lists are for services across the three trial sites.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said it was astounding the department compiled a list of services across the trial sites but did not know about the wait times.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the government has not done its due diligence when it comes to consultation, evidence and information gathering,” she told AAP.

Matt Noffs, from drug rehabilitation service the Ted Noffs Foundation, said trying to force an addict to stop or stripping away their welfare would drive up crime.

“Let me tell you, they will rob your house or my house to get the drugs,” he told senators.

Professor Ritter warned the drug tests may also push some people onto more harmful, undetectable substances.

“I think that’s a likely unintended consequence and that’s obviously a big worry,” she said.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has described the three measures as “at best ineffective and at worst directly harmful”.

Abbott swipes school on gay marriage

Former prime minister Tony Abbott has taken a swipe at his former school after it came out in defence of same-sex marriage.

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The rector of Sydney’s prestigious Saint Ignatius’ College, whose alumni also include Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, has written to parents and staff outlining the merits of same-sex marriage.

While stopping short of endorsing a “yes” vote in the upcoming postal survey, Father Ross Jones says many same-sex couples wish to marry for the same reasons as heterosexual couples.

Mr Abbott opposes same-sex marriage but insists his position is not driven by religion but by the fact marriage produces families which are the foundation of society.

“It sounds like they’re sitting firmly on the fence, which is a pretty painful place to be,’ he told 2GB of his former school on Wednesday.

He also dragged his gay sister, Christine Forster, into the debate, arguing that while she and her partner “do a good job” raising their children, it was best when kids had a mother and a father.

“Chris has made it very clear that as a family we can all get on even though we don’t always agree on everything,” he said.

In a school newsletter last week. Father Jones said although one strain of the Catholic church’s teaching argued all sexual activity including that of heterosexual couples must be procreative, another strain, the school of reason approach, was about understanding what it is to be human.

“Were it not for the school of reason approach, we would still hold that slavery could be justified, or believe that wives were subject to their husbands, contra to what St Paul clearly dictated in the scriptures,” he writes.

“Presumably, same sex couples who make such a commitment to each other in good conscience, do so by reflecting on experience and on what it is to be human, using their God-given reason.”

The rector of another prestigious Jesuit school, Melbourne’s Xavier College, has also defended same-sex marriage arguing the sacrament must evolve with the times.

The schools’ position defies that of Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, who has urged Catholics to vote against change for the “health and future” of society.