World and Nation

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Volcanic ash grounds air traffic in northern Europe

PARIS — A dark and spectacular volcanic cloud shrouded much of northern Europe on Thursday, forcing airlines to cancel thousands of flights as it drifted at high altitude south and east from an erupting volcano in Iceland. The shutdown of airspace was one of the most sweeping ever ordered in peacetime, amid fears that travel could continue to be delayed days after the cloud dissipates.

The cloud, made up of minute particles of silicate that can severely damage jet engines, left airplanes stranded on the tarmac at some of the world’s busiest airports as it spread over Britain and toward continental Europe.

The volcano erupted Wednesday for the second time in a month, forcing evacuations and causing flooding about 75 miles east of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Matthew Watson, a specialist at Bristol University in England in the study of volcanic ash clouds, said the plume was “likely to end up over Belgium, Germany, the Lowlands — a good portion over Europe,” and was unlikely to dissipate for 24 hours or more.

Even then, any resumption of flights would not be immediate, said John Lampl, a British Airways spokesman in New York. “For several days you’ll have crews and airplanes in the wrong places,” he said. “It will take a few days to sort it out.”

Continental and United resume talks to merge

When the music stopped on Thursday in the airline industry’s game of musical chairs, Continental Airlines and United Airlines were back in talks again, and US Airways was still trying to grab a seat.

The latest merger talks come just a week after United and US Airways resumed their own off-again, on-again attempts at combining operations. But most industry analysts had viewed those discussions as a not-so-subtle attempt by United to lure Continental back to the negotiating table.

People briefed on the matter cautioned Thursday that the discussions between Continental and United were in the early stages and could quickly fall apart. And talks between United and US Airways are still going on.

In call to alter NASA, Obama vows renewed space program

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — Pointing to Mars and asteroids as destinations, President Barack Obama on Thursday forcefully countered criticisms that he was trying to end the nation’s human spaceflight program.

This was the first time that the president had lent his personal political capital in an increasingly testy fight over the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am,” he said in a speech to about 200 attendees of a White House-sponsored space conference here.

But he was unwavering in insisting that NASA must change in sending people into space. “We’ve got to do it in a smart way,” Obama said, “and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve been doing and thinking that’s going to get us where we want to go.”

Instead of earlier vague assurances by Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, and other administration officials that NASA would eventually venture beyond Earth orbit, Obama gave dates and destinations for astronauts. But the goals would be achieved long after he leaves office: a visit to an asteroid after 2025, reaching Mars by the mid-2030s.