SpaceX Kickstarts Human Spaceflight 2.0

SpaceX Crew Dragon 2

As the world watched with bated breaths on live telecast, SpaceX Crew Dragon 2 spacecraft was launched successfully on 31 May, 12.52 AM IST. Being the first private vehicle to carry a human crew to the International Space Station (ISS), will it mark the beginning of a new era in space flights? Can it alter the course of space travel by putting private players in the driver’s seat?

Crux of the Matter

About the Launch

Former military pilots and current NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are traveling to the ISS in Dragon 2, the successor to the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft. The reusable spacecraft was launched atop a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket, powered by Merlin engines burning liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellants. It was equipped with an integrated launch escape system capable of accelerating the vehicle away from the rocket at 11.8 metre per second square for any emergency.

Source: Parabolic Arc

After takeoff, the spacecraft reached Earth’s orbit in 12 minutes, wherein the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule separated. The rocket returned to Earth and landed on the drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’. The capsule remained in orbit for 19 hours before using its autonomous system to dock with the ISS. The astronauts will stay on the ISS for one to four months, then head back to Earth in the same capsule.

A cute zero-gravity indicator for both the astronauts

Behind The Scenes
Founded in 2002, SpaceX flew the cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft for the first time in 2010. Since then it has flown more than a dozen cargo missions to the ISS for NASA. In March 2019 it performed an unmanned test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, a major test for the company. 

However, in April 2019 that spacecraft exploded in a routine test after a valve issue and recently their Starship SN4 Prototype blew up into flames in a static fire test. Despite the setbacks, getting back on track to launch Dragon 2 is commendable on the part of both the space visionary Elon Musk and his dedicated team.

When the Dragon 2 flies, SpaceX will become the first private company ever to fly humans to orbit. SpaceX has already started signing agreements to offer berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips as early as next year. The mission’s success is a necessary stepping stone for Musk’s ultimate goal of launching humans on space flights to transport them to Mars by 2024, after sending an unmanned cargo rocket to check the feasibility further by 2022.

As for NASA, it has given a fitting head start to it’s planned crewed mission to the moon in 2024. It is also speculated to mark the end of American reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program, with NASA sending astronauts into space for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011 due to the dearth of resources and funding back then.

Next Step: Privatizing Space Globally Or Unilaterally?

Similar to when the first commercial airline flights began, I think the world will be changed forever.

Mike Massimino, Former NASA astronaut

Not everyone seems happy with the launch as there have been reports of Russian officials criticizing the White House for its attempt to unilaterally privatize space to exploit the earth’s resources and instead demanded international cooperation in space. As Musk’s SpaceX will become NASA’s first Commercial Crew Program partner, the launch would represent a major milestone for the commercial spaceflight industry, in what has traditionally been a field solely dominated by government space agencies like India’s ISRO, Canada’s CSA, Europe’s ESA, Russia’s Roscosmos and China’s CNSA, and US’s NASA.

Private players like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Boeing can then confidently venture into doing viable collaborations with the government. Boeing is expected to launch its Starliner spacecraft with humans for the first time in spring 2021.

Back at home, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman recently announced that the Private sector will be a co-traveller in India’s Space journey with ISRO, as a part of Policy reforms to fast-track investment effort towards Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India). Currently, the Department of Space has special research labs called ‘Space Cells’ but its scope is limited to ISRO’s needs. Now in order to encourage private sector participation, the government needs to incentivise them by providing risk coverage and legal support. 

  • Elon Musk has had his sights on colonizing Mars for nearly two decades. Musk has said that reading sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” saga helped inspire him to found SpaceX because it opened his eyes to the idea of prolonging human civilization by “building spaceships to extend the human species’s reach” to planets other than Earth.
  • In February 2018 Elon Musk successfully launched a Cherry Red Tesla Roadster electric car into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket launched by SpaceX. Starman (a mannequin) is in the driver’s seat of the Roadster and is currently driving into space. On August 17th, 2019 it completed its first orbit around the sun.
  • Elon Musk co-founded a school for his five sons in 2014, called Ad Astra. The school had as many as 8 students and was based in a conference room at SpaceX. As of 2018, Ad Astra had over 40 students, the majority of whom were children of SpaceX staff. Ad Astra is a popular Latin phrase meaning “through hardships to the stars”.

Antibody Testing And Its Scope In Fighting Covid-19

Virologists and medical experts around the world have made themselves busy by researching different mechanisms to combat against Covid-19. Off late media coverage of antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2, has generated high hopes that individuals who are immune to this virus can be identified. So how does antibody testing work? Are immunity passports feasible? Can it be adopted by authorities as an additional tool to diagnostic testing?

Crux of the Matter

What Is Antibody Testing?

Source: ITV

Antibody testing involves screening a sample of blood for tiny protein molecules known as antibodies that have ‘learned’ to respond to a particular pathogen like a virus. T-cells found in antibodies can easily recognize and fight off viruses on being exposed to them and our immune system mounts different responses based on that within seven to 14 days.

In the case of SARS-CoV-2, antiviral antibodies can be found in the blood after infection, but they are also present in the respiratory system, where the virus resides and propagates. So if a doctor finds in a person’s blood antibodies that respond to virus, they can confirm that the person has overcome the infection caused by the novel Coronavirus.

IgM and IgG are antibodies

What Researchers Say?
Researchers and virologists initially stated that deploying antibody tests widely in communities can help monitor the local population and ease the quarantine restrictions accordingly. According to Dr. Jenny Harries, Chief Medical Officer of England, a deeper insight into the number of people that have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection could enable specialists to accurately estimate the dynamic and rate of the virus’ spread. This indicated a possibility of freedom of movement for asymptomatic people having their immunity proof in the form of documents or immunity passports.

A medical study yet to be peer-reviewed in France even posted on the medRXiv server about a finding that suggests, even mild cases of coronavirus that don’t require hospital treatment, produce antibodies in 99.4% patients, with the body’s defenses against the virus increasing during the weeks of recovery.

CDC and WHO Cannot Make Up Their Minds?

People who assume that they are immune to a second infection may ignore public health advice. The use of such certificates may, therefore, increase the risks of continued transmission.

World Health Organization

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) came under the scanner recently after there was an alleged mix up of numbers from the two completely different kinds of coronavirus test: RT-PCR and antibody tests, which confused medical experts around the globe who are invested in drawing conclusions from the released data and calculating how deadly the disease is.

About Short & Long Term Decisions
Even though antibody testing garnered media popularity with early stage research, many medical officials weren’t supportive of the immunity passports making public health policy decisions. They believe that there is no solid evidence that people have acquired long-term immunity after recovering from SARS-COV-2. Thus even if people’s bodies have produced antibodies in response to past infection, they can get re-infected. The silver lining being that till date, recurrence of the virus has been rare, so short term immunity.

About Prevalence, Sensitivity & Specificity 
In coronavirus diagnosis, test sensitivity is the ability of the test to correctly identify those with the SARS-COV-2 virus (true positive rate), whereas test specificity is the ability of the test to correctly identify those without the virus (true negative rate).

Thus the antibody test has to be sensitive enough not to miss the antibodies if they’re actually present, but specific enough not to accidentally show a positive result. Now the results of testing can go wrong if in the end, it all depends on the prevalence of the virus i.e how common the virus is in the population being tested. Take the two cases below:

Case 1: In a population where the prevalence is 5%, a test with 90% sensitivity and 95% specificity will yield a positive predictive value of 49%. So only less than half of those testing positive in the antibody test will have antibodies.

Case 2: In a population with prevalence exceeding 52%, a positive predictive value greater than 95% will be yielded, then only less than 1 in 20 people testing positive will have a false positive test i.e positive results for individuals that do not have the antibody in reality.

As per Bayes Theorem, lower the prevalence rate of the virus, larger the number of false positives. Therefore, it’s best to use tests with high specificity that are unlikely to throw up high false positives, like RT-PCR diagnosis, the current gold standard in the Covid-19 battle.

Where All Has It Been Approved ?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued an emergency use authorization for 12 tests, including a combination of lab-based and point-of-care tests, whereas 200 other devices are awaiting approval.

The EU recently validated an antibody test developed by the healthcare and medical device company Abbott Laboratories.Abbott claims that their test has “99.6% specificity and 100% sensitivity for patients tested 14 days after symptoms began,” which would indicate a high level of accuracy.

What’s Happening in India?
Meanwhile, the Indian government in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research is planning to do antibody tests in 69 districts of 21 major states in the country. A survey would be conducted to collect blood samples from 400 randomly selected individuals (one per household) from 10 clusters in each district. Samples from each of these individuals would be tested for the presence of IgG antibodies using ELISA test developed by the National Institute of Virology, Pune, and manufactured by Zydus Cadila.

So to use, or not to use ?
Complete reliance on antibody tests would give the people a false sense of security and make them lenient towards following social distancing and optimum quarantining mechanisms. These tests can instead be used as an additional tool to diagnostic testing to identify true positive coronavirus cases and lower the overall positivity rate by understanding the natural course of the virus.

Medical researchers globally plan to test new groups of participants every few weeks in the coming months to gauge the pandemic’s trajectory in various regions. Once we know more about the tests, evidence based guidelines can be further generated to indicate how to use the findings. 

  • The first use of the term “antibody” occurred in a text by Paul Ehrlich. The term Antikörper (the German word for antibody) appears in the conclusion of his article “Experimental Studies on Immunity”, published in October 1891. In 1908, Paul received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to immunology.
  • Angel of the West is an outdoor sculpture in Jupiter, Florida, United States. The sculpture was made in 2008 by German sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae. It is based on the antibody structure published by E. Padlan. The antibody is placed into a ring referencing Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man thus highlighting the similarity of the antibody and the human body.
  • Oswald Theodore Avery Jr. was a Canadian-American physician and medical researcher. Avery was one of the first molecular biologists and a pioneer in immunochemistry. The Nobel laureate Arne Tiselius said that Avery was the most deserving scientist not to receive the Nobel Prize for his work, though he was nominated for the award throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Waves of Sorrow – Cyclone Amphan and Beyond

From May 2019’s Cyclone Fani to May 2020’s Cyclone Amphan, Bay of Bengal tackled 2 cyclones, with Coronavirus being an added crisis this year. How are authorities tackling Amphan in India and Bangladesh? Has our nation evolved in disaster preparedness along the way? Has the response plan mitigated the destruction expected?

Crux of the Matter

Bay of Bengal or Bay of Sorrow? 
The largest bay in the world, home to 500 million people, Bay of Bengal is also the site of the majority of the deadliest tropical cyclones in world history i.e 26 of 35 till date, as per findings by Weather Underground.

Experts suggest that one of the main reasons for this bias is favourable conditions like high sea surface temperatures. Additionally worst areas for storm surges tend to be shallow, concave bays where water, pushed by the strong winds of a tropical cyclone, gets concentrated as the storm moves up the bay.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the tropical cyclone season in this Bay and neighbouring Arabian Sea has two peaks around May and November. The cyclones can form in the western Pacific Ocean and travel in a northwest direction before arriving in the Bay. 

The Emergence of Amphan 
Christened from the Thai word “Um-pun” or sky, Super Cyclonic Storm Amphan was a deadly tropical cyclone that caused widespread havoc in Kolkata, India, and Bangladesh this month. It was the first cyclonic storm to occur at a wind speed crossing 220kmph (137mph) in the Bay of Bengal since 1999 one in Odisha wherein 12.9 million people were affected. Causing over US$13 billion of damage, Amphan has also bagged the title of being the costliest cyclone ever recorded in the North Indian Ocean, surpassing the record held by Cyclone Nargis of 2008

Disaster Preparedness on the Right Path in India
The India Meteorological Department has successfully built an accurate service to predict timings of cyclone formation in the Bay of Bengal in the last decade. Additionally there have been reports of clear communication and effective coordination by the disaster relief state authorities, like when 2.6m text messages were sent to locals in clear language before cyclone Fani hit in Orissa and West Bengal last year, keeping everyone alert and up to date. With relief infrastructure built in vulnerable pockets of the country, we have a well laid out plan for disaster management and distribution of relief whenever a crisis strikes and aiming for a minimized casualty.

Response This Time 
Both the Bangladesh and Indian governments managed to safely evacuate two million and one million people respectively. Thus Amphan had a lesser casualty of 25 in former and 70 in the latter. In Bangladesh, more than 12,000 cyclone shelters have been set up with COVID-19 prevention equipment, including masks, sanitizers, soap and handwashing facilities. In India, 27,000 shelters have been set up along with provision of food for 75 Lakh people to fight with both coronavirus and the super cyclone simultaneously.

In India, the National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Fund, Kolkata police, fire services and West Bengal state police have been busy in relief and restoration efforts. Meanwhile the state and district-level Interagency Group coordination mechanism have also been activated in West Bengal. PM Narendra Modi announced a $132 million emergency relief package, after travelling to the region to survey the damage.

  • An extraterrestrial vortex is a vortex that occurs on planets and natural satellites other than Earth that have sufficient atmospheres. Most observed extraterrestrial vortices have been seen in large cyclones or anticyclones.
  • Henry Piddington published 40 papers dealing with tropical storms from Calcutta between 1836 and 1855 in The Journal of the Asiatic Society. He also coined the term cyclone, meaning the coil of a snake.
  • Typhoon Tip was the largest tropical cyclone on record, with a diameter of 2,220 km. At its largest, Tip was nearly half the size of the United States.

Covid Numbers At India’s 100k Mark

So far, the world’s second-most populous country, India appears to have dodged the bullet by reducing the estimated millions of Coronavirus cases with a significantly tiny figure of 100k+, as of 19 May. What could be the possible reasons for the nation having things under control? Were the range of lockdowns helpful in flattening the curve after all?

Crux of the Matter

Speedy Decision-Making By Authorities
The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), used data from 73 countries to report the commendable work of the Indian government in tackling the pandemic. It noted the government’s swift action, emergency policy-making, emergency investment in healthcare, fiscal measures, investment in vaccine research, and active response to the situation and scored India with a “100” for its strictness.

Impact of Lockdowns
From introducing Lockdown 1.0 to taking swift decisions in 4.0, India announced a nationwide lockdown when the country had reported 519 coronavirus cases. Subsequently all international commercial flights were banned from landing in India and all passenger train services in the country were suspended. 

Comparing this with other nations, Italy waited until it had 9,200 + cases while the UK had about 6,700 before both went into lockdowns. Thus while India took 106 days to reach the 80,000-mark, Italy, Spain, Germany and the US took 44-66 days to reach the same.  So the sooner the people were self quarantined the lesser the point of contacts were established.

What Do The Figures Say About The Impact Of Lockdowns?

Journey from 1.0 to 4.0 in terms of doubling time

Doubling time refers to the time taken for a parameter to double in value. So if the doubling time of the number of new cases increases steadily over a period of time, it indicates that it is taking more time for new cases to emerge and thus the transmission rate of infection has declined. So if doubling time is 2, it means, day 1’s 10 cases become 20 on day 2 cases and 40 on day 3 and so on.

A large rise or dip in the number of total cases can give an incorrect impression of the severity of the spread of the disease. Therefore, doubling time is often calculated using a metric of 5-day, 7-day, or 10-day average of cases, in order to capture data trends over longer stretches of time. 

In terms of a 5-day average calculated for India, On March 12, the first death was reported and when the death rate reached 10, on March 24, India announced the first Lockdown with a doubling time of 3 days. In the subsequent lockdown 2.0 declared on 14 April, the growth rate of the pandemic slowed down to a doubling time of 7 days by 18 April.

The statistics of total cases and the number of deaths, recoveries and active cases in the starting two week period of May 1 – May 14

Then in lockdown 3.0 extended from May 1 to May 17, this very doubling time improved to 13.6 days, as reported on the last day of lockdown by the Health Ministry. Furthermore the country was divided into 3 zones namely Green Zone, Red Zone, Orange Zone in the third lockdown, that signified the relaxations implemented in each of them accordingly. Currently the country is in phase 4 of the nationwide lockdown which involves restarting of day to day lives of citizens.

To each doubling time projection, existed their own total cases

Case Projection: The estimated number of active coronavirus cases based on prior data values
Actual Cases: The number of coronavirus cases calculated and updated on a daily, real-time basis

If that doubling time of 3 days from lockdown 1.0 continued for 2 months from March 17 to May 19, there would have been 150 million projected cases till date i.e more than 10% of the 1.3 billion Indian population!

 Similarly if the doubling time of 7 days obtained on 11 April, the day of 7.5k active cases, continued for an approximate time of 30 days, 2.5 Lakh projected cases would have existed today in India.

However as of 19 May, India stands at a relatively optimistic figure of 1.1+ Lakh actual cases which directly signifies how the lockdowns imposed in the nation have made things come under control. The flattening of the coronavirus curve occurred when it could have gone far worse and steeper, as portrayed by blue and red curves respectively in the aforementioned graph.

Fig B

Figures A and B confirm the same observations, wherein the former estimates are in stark contrast with the slowed-down latter doubling rate of actual cases (total, active and deaths).

As inferred from the stacked graph above, the active rate has decreased in the time frame of March to May along with an increase in recovery rate, that portrays an overall positive representation of the decline of infection in the country’s cases. 

Zooming in on the red, straight lined fatality rate in the graph plotted w.r.t y-axis shooting up to ~3.5%, the measure saw an all-time low on 21 March and after witnessing a subtle rise from late March to mid-April. Thereby it remained constant at approximately 3%, with the latest figure stating a decline after 19 May.

It has been noted that the actual fatality rate signifies the total number of deaths reported by authorities globally due to novel coronavirus, refers to the demise of severely affected, hospitalized patients.

State-wise Test statistics in India

Number of Tests conducted globally

Tests per million population performed in the most impacted countries worldwide as of May 20, 2020

How To Maintain The Winning Curve?
According to experts, India must continue to test, identify, and isolate the cases early to limit the spread of the disease even after the nationwide lockdown comes to a complete end. The hotspots should be updated on a daily basis in terms of the active and recovery cases and localise necessary lockdown measures accordingly.

  • Contagion is a 2011 American thriller film directed by Steven Soderbergh. In 2020, the film received renewed popularity due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which bears some resemblance to the pandemic depicted in the film. In March HBO Now also reported that Contagion had been the most viewed title for two weeks straight.
  • The 1994 plague in India was an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague in south-central and western India from 26 August to 18 October 1994. A total of 693 cases and 56 deaths were reported. The center of the plague was Surat, Gujarat.

Tracking The Covid Tracking Apps

Digital Tracking

With the ongoing popularity of the Aarogya Setu app launched by the Indian government, focus has shifted to digital contract tracing mechanisms and how it is useful in pandemics. Regardless of countries’ differing approaches, the goal is the same: virtual surveillance that keeps them updated on the Covid-19 live data. But are agencies tracking more than just location data? Where should the line be drawn to protect a user’s privacy? Should there be a shared standard of transparency?

Crux of the Matter

Evolution of Digital Tracking
1996-2000s: GSM Triangulation (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a method by which the location of a radio transmitter can be determined by measuring either the radial distance, or the direction of the received signal from two or three different points for locating a regular mobile phone. Before GPS, this was used to find location of a user.

2006-2010s: The GPS (Global Positioning System) is a radio-navigation system formed from a group of satellites and ground stations. It was initially designed for military use and controlled by the US Department of Defense, but now civilian users are able to use the system without any restrictions. For smartphone users, GPS helps in finding stolen/lost devices and assists in map navigation while travelling.

2015- 2020s: A new tracking technology called bluetooth mesh tracking was launched by startups like Tile, Trackr and Stick-n-find to help smartphone users keep a track of important items like a briefcase or home keys by using bluetooth. This mechanism uses a node that has the newest information about the whereabouts of the user’s belongings. So the strongest signal would be closest to the location of the user’s car keys.

Then with the onset of COVID-19, a need to keep track of coronavirus cases on an accurate, minute by minute basis started and contract tracing applications like India’s Aarogya Setu and Mexico’s CovidRadar were launched by the authorities globally.

Covid Contact Tracing Apps By Various Countries
The MIT Technology Review has launched a database to track 25 significant automated contact-tracing systems around the world. These are mapping apps that can track the movements of infected people, ones that can be used to monitor people in domestic quarantine, and smart city tracing systems that allow health authorities investigators to track the mobility of confirmed infected people by using surveillance cameras and credit card transactions.

South Korean way: Private-public partnership for digital monitoring
When the government in different parts of the world made data on COVID-19 patients freely available on their respective public portals, developers from the private sector immediately used them to program smartphone apps with their skills and expertise.

Europen way: New standard sought for data protection
Relying on voluntary use, the Europeans want to record the proximity and duration of contact between people for a limited period of time and remain completely anonymous without location detection. Over 30 organizations currently seek to comply with German and European data protection laws, like Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PPEP-PT) that conforms to EU data protection regulations and can be used beyond national borders.

Chinese way: Maintain quarantine decorum 
China’s tracking mechanisms are being used by the local police to detect those breaking quarantine rules. Hosted by their largest tech companies: Alibaba Group, Tencent Holdings, and Baidu Inc., their apps gather a wide range of specifications like the identity of citizens, real time locations, and online payment records.

Volunteers’ way: Non-profit projects 
A volunteer team consisting of researchers and developers created ‘How We Feel’ application that enables the users to check in daily and report any new information regarding the COVID-19 in their vicinity, without the need for signup and only linked to the area zip-code.

Calling Devices Or Spy Devices?
A group of researchers from Northeastern University’s Cybersecurity department installed general apps that weren’t designed to need a location tracking feature like a flashlight or contact app.

However even when GPS is turned off by the user, inbuilt phone sensors are always activated including an accelerometer, that tracks how fast a phone is moving, a magnetometer, that works like a digital compass, and a gyroscope, that tracks rotation.

Thus the survey found that it was able to track those test subjects using just phone sensors, which points to such companies having access to the users’ location without their permission.

So How To Track Users Without Violating Their Privacy?
When authorities recognize flattening of the curve of infection, reopening parts of society is a necessary step to revive the economy and in turn people’s daily lives. For Covid-19, a quick mechanism needed to be designed at the peak of the pandemic. However, in times ahead, the “test and trace” schemes can be implemented in a way that gives the desired output data while respecting user’s privacy.

Along with Coronavirus response plan, measures like social distancing, wide-scale testing, and isolating sick individuals, digital tracking app would be a part of the new normal if the users’ trust is established in them. Since no software is built in a day, other companies can build their own version of surveillance prototypes and keep it optional for the users to download and use or can form a group of dedicated beta testers.

  • The GPS project was started by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1973, with the first prototype spacecraft launched in 1978 and the full constellation of 24 satellites operational in 1993. Originally limited to use by the United States military, civilian use was allowed from the 1980s following an executive order from President Ronald Reagan.
  • When Pakistani troops took positions in Kargil in 1999, one of the first things the Indian military sought was a global positioning system (GPS) data for the region. The space-based navigation system maintained by the US government would have provided vital information, but the US denied it to India.
  • The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), with an operational name of NavIC (an acronym for Navigation with Indian Constellation; also, nāvik means ‘sailor’ or ‘navigator’ in Sanskrit), is an autonomous regional satellite navigation system that provides accurate real-time positioning and timing services. It covers India and a region extending 1,500 km around it.