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.

Cyclones Getting Stronger With Time

cyclones getting stronger with time

Recent studies have pointed to an increase in intensity of cyclones as well as the change of directions amidst global warming and other ecological changes.

Crux of the Matter

Recent Research
Recent research on cyclones has pointed to the increasing strength of “the maximum sustained winds”, indicating that cyclones on average are getting stronger with time. The cyclones are also reported to shift their location towards the earth’s poles while shifting across the lands. This change has been brought on, including several causes, by global warming where the earth is witnessing an increase in average temperature due to rapid industrialization, etc.

Formation of Cyclones

  • Cyclones are intensive circular storms generated over warm oceans
  • Forms when warm air near oceans ascends, creating low-pressure region
  • Surrounding air of high pressure comes to take place in the vacated low-pressure region
  • The warm air on the top condenses into clouds, creating a combination of clouds and storms
  • The storm on reaching lands loses its source power of warm ocean air but continues to propel forward till exhausted
  • Tropical Cyclone Kesiny was the first recorded tropical cyclone – the equivalent of a minimal hurricane – to make landfall in the month of May in the south-west Indian Ocean. Its formation was the result of an increase in the Madden–Julian oscillation, which also contributed to a twin storm in the north Indian Ocean.
  • The topic of “Tropical cyclones and climate change” receives considerable attention from climate scientists who study the connections between storms and climate, and notably since 2005 makes news during active storm seasons. The 2018 U.S. National Climate Change Assessment reported that “increases in greenhouse gases and decreases in air pollution have contributed to increases in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1970.”
  • Henry Piddington was an English merchant captain who sailed in East India and China. He is particularly well known for his pioneering studies in the meteorology of tropical storms and hurricanes. He noted the circular winds recorded by ships caught in storms and coined the name cyclone in 1848 based on his studies of tropical storms and the observation of circular winds around a calm center.

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.

Cryptocurrency Gets Green Light In India

cryptocurrency bitcoin

Recent declaration by RBI cleared all confusions regarding legality of Cryptocurrency, as RBI announced that there is no prohibition on opening of bank accounts by Cryptocurrency traders.

Crux of the Matter

Recent Reversal
In March 2020, Supreme Court of India reversed RBI’s decision of 2018 of banning regulated financial intermediaries from using cryptocurrency. However, confusion lingered among potential investors. On the demand of a Right To Information (RTI) application, RBI announced that cryptocurrency traders can be allowed to open bank accounts.

While the Supreme Court ruling had made it very clear that there are no curbs on banking for crypto businesses, the RBI reply to RTI filing is very much welcome. There has been confusion amongst many banks despite the Supreme Court ruling because these banks have been waiting for information from RBI.

Nischal Shetty, CEO of WazirX

History Of Cryptocurrency In India

  • 2012-2013: Cryptocurrency comes in mainstream observation
  • 2013: RBI cautions of it and labels it “risky”
  • 2016: Exponential increase in its use after Demonetization
  • 2017: RBI repeats concerns of 2013, with the Finance Ministry expressing concern over safety and legality of transactions
  • 2018: RBI prohibits regulated financial institutions’ dealing with cryptocurrency
  • March 2020: SC legalizes Cryptocurrency, overturning RBI’s decision of 2018
  • May 2020: RBI Says “No Prohibition” on Banks allowing accounts to Cryptocurrency traders

Crypto Around The World

  • 2008: An anonymous paper by title “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” appeared
  • 2009: Bitcoin made available to public
  • 2011: Other cryptocurrencies appear – Namecoin, Litecoin, etc
  • 2013: Bitcoin prices crash after reaching 1 Bitcoin = $1,000
  • 2014: Bitcoin exchange Mt.Gox goes offline. Loss of $450 million
  • 2017: Japan passes law legalizing Bitcoin as payment method
  • 2020: India legalizes Cryptocurrency
  • Satoshi Nakamoto is the name used by the presumed pseudonymous person or persons who developed bitcoin, authored the bitcoin white paper, and created and deployed bitcoin’s original reference implementation. As part of the implementation, Nakamoto also devised the first blockchain database.
  • Libra is a permissioned blockchain digital currency proposed by the American social media company Facebook, Inc. The currency and network do not yet exist, and only a rudimentary experimental code has been released. The launch is planned to be later this year.
  • ZebPay is a cryptocurrency exchange and wallet provider headquartered in Singapore with a registered office in Australia. It is currently operational in over 163 countries, including India. In 2020, ZebPay was acquired by Rahul Pagidipati, who is currently serving as CEO, and relaunched in India with a new crypto-crypto trading feature.

Why Bats Are The Biggest Hosts Of Viruses

Bats are host to most deadly viruses

Amidst associations of Coronavirus to bats, a research has found that bats have very strong immunity against pathogens that prevents the latter from killing them. The breeding ground of deadly viruses, bats also live in an environment that becomes a host to virulent pathogens that when transferred to beings with low immunity turn out to be fatal.

Crux of the Matter

Zoonotic Bats
A study on bats hosting zoonotic virus without experiencing the disease themselves was published. Zoonotic virus or disease means a virus or disease that can be transferred from animals to humans. It said that bats are natural reservoirs for viruses with the highest fatality rates – including rabies, Ebola and the SARS coronavirus. This is because they have antiviral defenses to keep the amount of virus in check.

Some have an antiviral immune response called the interferon pathway perpetually switched on. A hyper-vigilant immune response such as this causes harmful inflammation. However, bats have adapted anti-inflammatory traits including the loss of certain genes that normally promote inflammation.

How Do They Do It?
The study found that bat cell lines demonstrated enhanced interferon (IFN) mediated immune response in constitutive or induced form. This leads to rapid within-host, cell-to-cell virus transmission rate. Antiviral state induced by IFN pathway protects live cells from mortality. Viruses evolved in bat reservoirs possessing enhanced IFN capabilities have rapid within-host transmission rates without causing pathology to their hosts. Such rapidly-reproducing viruses have extreme virulence upon spillover to hosts (generally humans) lacking similar immune capacities to bats.

What Does Bat Woman Say?
Shi Zhengli is popularly called China’s Bat Woman for her extensive work on bats and viruses in them. She was the Deputy Director of Wuhan Institute of Virology. She said that such viruses are just ‘tip of the iceberg’ and expressed regret over the politicization of science.

If we want to protect humans from viruses or avoid a second outbreak of new infectious diseases, we must go in advance to learn of these unknown viruses carried by wild animals in nature and then give early warnings.

Shi Zhengli, Former Deputy Director of Wuhan Institute of Virology

  • Chiropterophily is pollination of plants by bats. Bat pollination is most common in tropical and desert areas that have many night-blooming plants. Just like bees and birds that pollinate, nectar-consuming bats have evolved ways to find and harvest the sweet liquid.
  • A study has revealed that vampire bat venom could soon be used to treat a range of serious medical problems, including heart failure and kidney disease. Researchers from the University of Queensland have found a new class of peptides in the venom from vampire bats.
  • The bumblebee bat is a near-threatened species of bat. It occurs in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar, where it occupies limestone caves along rivers. It is the smallest species of bat and arguably the world’s smallest mammal.