SpaceX Commercial Crew Program Begins Space 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 going to travel to the ISS in Dragon 2, the successor to the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft. The reusable spacecraft launches atop a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket, powered by Merlin engines burning liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellants. In case of an emergency, it is equipped with an integrated launch escape system capable of accelerating the vehicle away from the rocket at 11.8 metre per second square. 

Source: Parabolic Arc

After takeoff, the spacecraft will reach Earth’s orbit in 12 minutes, wherein the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule shall separate. The rocket will return to Earth and land on their drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’. The capsule will remain 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, 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.

Emergence of 5G With Huawei Leading The Way

Huawei leading the 5G revolution

In the past decade, the 4G network completely changed how we consume information and we saw an emergence of the mobile app industry becoming a new norm. The 5G is going to supercharge user experience with smart homes, autonomous driving, cloud control, and numerous such possibilities becoming the new norm. Companies like Ericsson and Qualcomm led the 4G revolution, yet how did Huawei emerge as the frontrunner in the 5G race?

Crux of the Matter

What is 5G?
5G is the next step in mobile technology, which will expand the mobile ecosystem to new industries bringing in more connectivity between people and things. It is a more important jump from the last generation than 4G was to 3G and 3G was to 2G primarily because it will be a unified connectivity fabric that will connect virtually everything around us.

Currently, the problem with 4G is not its technology, it is the networks and the data that are needed are not ready. For instance, Virtual reality, in order to achieve true immersion, needs several hundred gigabits of data, which 4G cannot do wireless right now. With low latency, 10x times download speed, virtually unlimited capacity, 5G will meet diverse Internet of Things (IoT) requirements and enable next-generation user experiences, empower new deployment models, and deliver new services.

According to recent estimates, by 2035, 5G will drive global growth with $13.2 trillion of global economic output, 22.3mn new jobs, and $2.1 trillion in GDP growth. 5G has superior reliability and thus will impact every industry, making safer transportation, remote healthcare, precision agriculture, and digitized logistics a reality.

In India, the concept of smart cities has been established and the 5G network will transform the lives of people living in them by providing greater efficiencies in traffic management, garbage handling, automotive safety, infrastructure, etc. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report 2019, in India, 5G subscriptions are expected to become available in 2022 and will represent 6% of mobile subscriptions at the end of 2024.

If 4G tech built us a road, then 5G tech will build a city.

Wang Xiaoyun, General Manager of Technology at China Mobile

However, only 10 years after the launch of 4G, the world is preparing for the next generation but it comes with high-cost investments in infrastructure by the mobile operators and thus to maximize the returns they need to understand how network infrastructure and the associated cost base will evolve over the next few years.

Role of Huawei in Leading 5G
Huawei Technologies Co. is a Chinese multinational founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei. It is the world’s largest supplier of telecom equipment and the number 2 producer of mobile phones. Huawei began researching on 5G way back in 2009 and due to which it has achieved remarkable feats from standardization to global tests and from commercial trials to commercial applications.

It secured polar coding before competitors, introduced the first network splicing router, and has 3GPP standards for eight key technologies, including soft NR architecture, and uplink, and downlink decoupling. Huawei produced the world’s first ASIC chip based small CPE and IPTV@5G with a speed of 2Gbps.

Enabling next-generation of communications, the Balong 5000 which is the first 7nm multi-mode chipset is a stepping stone into a wider field of cloud control and IoT possibilities. In terms of technology development and overall system performance, there is hardly anyone that can compete Huawei.

We estimate that 29 billion devices will be connected by 2021, and 5G will provide the road on which everyone will travel through digitally.

Qiu Heng, President of Huawei Wireless Marketing Operations

According to a 5G patent report published by IPlytics, Huawei ranks second only to Samsung in terms of the number of 5G SEP patents, while it stands first in technology contribution to 5G standards. Huawei with its extensive cooperation with more than 186 industrial partners and 45 collaboration projects across the world has emerged as the only company in the world that offers 5G end-to-end products and solutions.

As telecommunication giants that provide networking services to more than 170 countries around the world, Huawei was among one of the world leaders in rolling out 3G and 4G but in the case of 5G, it is likely to lead the way.

  • Ren Zhengfei is a Chinese entrepreneur and engineer. He is the founder and CEO of Shenzhen-based Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. As of 2019, he had a net worth of $1.3 billion.
  • The China-United States trade war is an ongoing economic conflict between China and the United States. President Donald Trump in 2018 began setting tariffs and other trade barriers on China with the goal of forcing it to make changes to what the U.S. says are “unfair trade practices”. Huawei was also restricted from doing commerce with U.S. companies due to alleged previous willful violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
  • On March 6, 2020, the first-ever all-5G smartphone Samsung Galaxy S20 was released. On March 19, HMD Global, the current maker of Nokia-branded phones, announced the Nokia 8.3, claimed as having a wider range of 5G compatibility than any other phone released to that time.

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.

RBI’s New Banking Reforms

Covid-19 has crippled the global economy and it is inexorably headed to a recession wherein central banks have to answer the call to the frontline in defence of the economy. This crisis is likely to shift scenarios and provide new dimensions to the economies and bring banking reforms worldwide.
Complete Coverage: Coronavirus

Crux of the Matter

India has a history of bringing in reforms during the periods of crisis and following the pandemic, the Reserve Bank Of India is making unprecedented monetary and regulatory banking reforms to provide relief and ensure liquidity funds flow to the affected sectors.

RBI reduced the repo rate by 40 basis points or 0.4% to 4%. The reverse repo rate stood at 3.35%. Moreover, it extended the moratorium on term loans by 3 more months till 31st August. RBI has announced other measures in four broad categories: Measures to Improve the Functioning of Markets, Measures to Support Exports and Imports, Measures to Ease Financial Stress, and Debt Management.

Firstly, a refinancing facility for Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) for funding requirements of the MSME and secondly, Investments by Foreign Portfolio Investors under the Voluntary Retention Route (VRR) shall offer operational flexibility in terms of instrument choices and certain regulatory exemptions. These market improvement measures are intended to ease constraints on market participants and channel liquidity to various sectors of the economy.

Under the second category, the RBI has increased the Export Credit from 9 months to 15 months and also provided an extension of time for payment for imports. Along with that, RBI will also be providing additional assistance and liquidity facility for Exim Bank Of India in order to promote international trade.

The third category is the most important as it will mitigate the burden of debt servicing, prevent the transmission of financial stress to the real economy, and ensure the continuity of viable businesses and households. RBI has permitted a 6-month moratorium on all term loan installments and it has also allowed a deferment of interest on Working capital facilities. The RBI will also undertake Long Term Repo Operations (LTRO) which will allow additional liquidity with the banks.

The central bank has further brought in changes in the Asset Classification, Resolution Timeline, and the Group Exposures under the Large Exposures Framework to ease financial stress. Finally, for effective debt management: guidelines have been relaxed in the Consolidated Sinking Fund (CSF) of state governments.

Global Financial Crisis of 2008
The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the US unfolded the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. It was understood that there is a high amount of risks involved when banks give loans of the entire value for a property assuming that the cost will rise and it will be easily repaid. When a number of banks did so, the banking sector and the economy saw the consequent effects leading to the global crisis.

The Indian banking sector remained largely unaffected but India was compelled to shift its credit demand from external sources to the domestic banking sector. Even though India’s financial system was less developed at that time; it did face serious consequences as the crisis led to the sharp decline in exports and fall of GDP to 6.72% in 2008-09 from 9.32% in 2007-08, giving rise to the expansion of fiscal deficit and extensive Public sector lending.

Due to lack of a framework for bankruptcy, India faced a risk of a large private sector bank going bankrupt with no legal way of dealing with it other than to force a public sector bank to buy it out, an approach that generally weakens the banking system. A number of expert committees recommended banking reforms, changes in regulations, and new frameworks like the Indian Bankruptcy Code. However, following different political scenarios and the legislative framework they could not be brought in which lead to the crisis of NPAs.

NPA Crisis
The 2008 crisis laid the foundation for much of today’s non-performing loans which have plagued the Indian banking sector. A loan given by a bank is classified as a Non-Performing Asset (NPA) if the borrower has stopped making interest or principal repayments for over 90 days. As of 2018, the gross value of NPAs stands at Rs. 10.35 lakh crores, out of which 85% is of Public sector banks.

Post-crisis the public sector banks were under tremendous pressure to lend large amounts to steel, power, and infrastructure projects and the euphoric lending led to a rise in bad loans and the NPA crisis. A number of scams came to the forefront wherein businesses borrowed under shell companies to execute projects in other countries; later the foreign banks invoked guarantees and domestic banks were obligated to pay and they could never recover their money.

NPAs have lowered the bank’s profitability and made them vulnerable to adverse economic shocks and consequently put consumer deposits at risk. This also led to India’s Twin Balance Sheet problem, wherein both the borrower and lender i.e. corporate sector and banking sector come under financial stress.

Thus, to avoid the snowballing effects leading to insolvency and NPA crisis, liquidity management has been given a priority by the RBI while bringing back normalcy in financial markets post Covid-19.

  • The Reserve Bank of India, which was established on April 1, 1935 during the British Rule, modeled its official emblem after the double mohur of The East India Company. The logo originally featured a sketch of the Lion and Palm Tree but it was later decided to replace the lion with a tiger to represent India better.
  • Ex RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan predicted the 2008 financial crisis in 2005. In his 2005 paper titled ‘Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?’, Rajan predicted that a financial crisis is in the making and going to hit the economy in the next 3-4 years.
  • The oldest continually operating bank in the world is Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which has been operating as a bank in Italy since 1472. The bank is on record as the first official bank in the world, although the practice of banking has been traced back for several centuries.

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.