NIAS- SDP Fortnightly on Science, Technology & International Relations

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NIAS- SDP Fortnightly on Science, Technology & International Relations
US, China, and the race to Mars, Cryptocurrencies face a setback as states pose hurdles, Polar Regions and Climate Change

  SDP Scholars

NIAS STIR, 1 June 2021, Vol.1, No.1

by Harini Madhusudan

US, China, and the race to Mars
The 2021 Mars landings and the US-China competition in Outer Space

In February 2021, the world watched three missions to the planet Mars reach critical phases after completing extremely difficult measures. Two among them, the missions by the US and China, have landed on the surface of Mars for further scientific investigations. What is the significance and what are the expected outcomes of the two surface missions of Mars? Can the US-China activities in Outer Space be considered a “race” on par with the US- USSR race of the Cold War era? Is the US-China engagement in Outer Space a competition, or does it only coincide with the competition on Earth?
The Two Surface Missions
On 14 May, a Chinese rover Zhurong touched on the Martian plain Utopia Planitia, and on 22 May, the rover began its 90-day exploration of Mars and has released its initial images of the same. On 18 February, with a goal to explore the crate Jezero, the US rover Perseverence landed on the surface of Mars; the US has made eight successful Mars landings since 1976.  Perseverance is expected to extract and store samples of the Martian surface, to be picked up and brought back to Earth by 2031. The Chinese mission marks the success of their first indigenously developed spacecraft which contained two critical payloads, a lander and the rover, designed to operate for one Martian year, and equipped to conduct mineralogical investigations. Both the missions hope to look for traces of life as one of their agenda.
Details of the Mars Missions
Chinese rover, once it rolls off its lander, would be the second successful mission after the US to operate a Mars rover. Landers, upon their entry to the atmosphere, have to withstand excessive heat which is done with the help of heat shields protecting the spacecraft. The landing sequence in the case of perseverance lasted for seven minutes and lasted for nine minutes in the case of Zhurong, slower than the other. The Chinese rover is said to be about one-fourth the mass of Perseverance. Like NASA’s earlier rover models, Zhurong runs on solar power, and Perseverance makes electricity from decaying radioactive plutonium.
As for the location of landings, the Jezero Crater is seen as dangerous terrain for the landing, with cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields; the crater is known to host a lake that is closer to the Martian equator, which is believed to have clay minerals which form in the presence of water. Perseverance is designed to take forward the work of its predecessor, the Curiosity rover, in search of evidence of past organisms. The location of the Chinese rover, the Utopia Plantia, is part of Nowhere Land Plain, a vast basin likely created by the impact of a meteor, and would have been underwater if Mars had water.
US-China in Outer Space 
While the US, in recent years, has focused on diversification of its space activities, with the steady rise of its private sector and its commitments to put people on Mars, and its plans for crewed missions to the moon and in a base in lunar orbit, China has managed to catch up,  succeeding the former Soviet Union, to stand as a competition to the US. Recently, China has landed on the far side of the moon, undertook a mission to bring four pounds of rocks and soil to earth, and launched a core module of its space station. However, both nations are seen actively engaging with other countries; for example the Artemis Accords, or the Chinese investments in the Space Programs of other countries.
The US and China are actively engaged in a bilateral competition on Earth. What started with a trade dispute in 2017, has expanded to include an active technological competition, involving allies and regional partners. Many have gone ahead to term this competition as a new Cold War. And in this context, they include the race in Outer Space as part of this competition. The Cold War Space competition between the US and USSR can be seen through a particular lens. It was a time when both countries were in their early days of technological advancements. Unlike now, Outer Space was unexplored territory for both nations and their engagement coincided with the Cold War tensions. The competition was intense, with a real threat of confrontation in Outer Space which eventually led to the birth of the Outer Space Treaty.
Coincidence? Competition?
Since the Chinese display of Anti Satellite capabilities, which became more prominent after the Chinese space ambitions were listed out in their 2016 White Paper, one can observe the competition between the US and China in Outer Space. This predates the bilateral conflict between the US and China on earth, and it is important to note that the intensity of the competition has not been as strong as it was during the Cold War. Despite the coincidence in the timing of the Mars missions, the competition between the US and China in Outer Space is not tit-for-tat. Though both sides intend to show their dominance, and power dynamics are involved, the competition is still far away from being direct; like the Cold War competition of the US and USSR.
The US-China competition in Outer Space should be seen regardless of their bilateral rivalries on earth, because of the imbalance in their technological capabilities. Additionally, the competition in Outer Space in itself is non-linear, all countries are seen engaging with their National Interests as the primary factor. Over the past decades, Outer Space has seen exponential growth in terms of technological capabilities, and its reach/depth, making it a multidimensional realm with many players involved; government, government-aided, and non-governmental.
With its current pace, China would still need over a decade to catch up with the US in terms of technological strength and the sheer magnitude of its investments. China’s growth in their space programme has been rapid despite being relatively late in starting and the pace of this growth is seen as a threat by the US. The US would likely lose its military dominance; in the context of having an upper hand in confrontational situations. The growth in Chinese capabilities negates this strategic advantage and offers an alternative. Hence, outer space is certainly new high ground for power competition but unlike the Cold War, here the US is only trying to secure its superiority, while both the countries are striving to expand their capabilities driven by their own interests.

Mars Factsheet

About Perseverance
Landing date: 18 February 2021
Landing Location: Jezero Crater 
Launch Vehicle: Atlas V
Energy Source: decaying radioactive plutonium
Weight/Mass: 1,025 kilograms 
Mission Period: one Martian year or two earth years

About Zhurong
Landing date: 14 May 2021
Landing location: Utopia Planitia 
Launch vehicle: Long March 5 Heavy-lift
Energy Source: Solar Power 
Weight/Mass: 240 kilograms 
Mission period: 90 sols or 92.5 earth days 

Successful US Missions to Mars 
Viking 1 & 2
The first mission to land their spacecraft safely on Mars. In 1975, two Identical spacecrafts were launched with a month’s gap. Viking 1 landed in Chryse Planitia, and Viking 2 landed in Utopia Planitia. They were launched with the Titan IIIE/ Centaur. They conducted soil experiments, collected extensive atmospheric data and returned thousands of images which also included the first image of the surface of Mars.

Mars Pathfinder
This mission was known for lasting five times more than its lasting warranty. Launched in 1996, it landed in Ares Vallis and demonstrated the first ever robotic rover on the surface of Mars. The mission was launched using Delta II and directly entered the Martian atmosphere assisted by a giant system of airbags to land the rover. The mission returned an unprecedented amount of data on soil, wind, and other weather factors.

Mars Exploration Rovers
In January 2004, two robotic geologists named spirit and opportunity landed on the opposite sides of the planet. They were launched with Delta II 7925 and Delta II 7925H respectively, and spirit landed on Gusev Crater, while opportunity landed on Meridiani Planum. These missions captured images of the terrain and microscopic images of the soil and rocks of the Martian surface. Spirit operated for six years and opportunity operated for fifteen years.

Mars Phoenix
In 2007, the Phoenix mission was chosen an initiative for smaller, lower-cost, competed for spacecraft as a continuation of their pursuit of water on Mars. The mission landed on the arctic plains of Mars called Vastitas Borealis, and returned more than 25 gigabits of data from its studies of Mars’ north polar region.

Mars Science Laboratory/ Curiosity Rover
Launched in 2011, Curiosity is considered the largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars. Its main aim is to explore Mars’ habitability. The mission was launched using Atlas V 541 and landed at the Gale Crater. The rover is still operating.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport is a NASA Discovery Program mission that will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. Launched in 2018, from the Atlas V 401, uses sophisticated geophysical instruments, and delves deep beneath the surface of Mars.

Mars 2020/ Perseverance
Launched in 2020, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. It seeks to answer key questions about the potential for life on Mars, by looking for traces in past microbial life.  The mission was launched with the Atlas V launch vehicle and is expected to collect samples and store it for return to earth at a later date.

Previous Attempt of China

China- Russia Phobos Grunt/Yinghuo-1
In 2011, China attempted its first mission to Mars on-board Russia’s Phobos Grunt. After languishing in Earth orbit for more than two months, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere when a malfunction stranded both the spacecraft in Earth orbit. It had aimed to study Phobos, the moon of Mars, and return soil samples to study the evolution of this moon. 

In brief
by Lokendra Sharma

Cryptocurrencies face a setback as states pose hurdles 
The past two weeks have been eventful for the cryptocurrency markets. All major cryptos, including bitcoin, have seen a massive decline in values and have also suffered setbacks in some jurisdictions. While South Korea has announced taxing crypto transactions, Iran has banned mining and China has further restricted the trading of cryptocurrencies.

On 28 May, South Korea announced its plans of imposing taxes on capital gains made from cryptocurrency transactions. The proposed taxation of 20 per cent will kick in from the coming year. The country’s financial regulator, the Financial Service Commission (FSC), has been entrusted with oversight of crypto markets. This plan was originally made public earlier this year and was met by calls from investors for deferment of the plan. (“S. Korea to levy 20 pct tax on cryptocurrency transactions starting next year as planned: gov't,” Yonhap News Agency, 28 May 2021)

On 26 May, Iran announced a ban on cryptocurrency mining for four months till 22 September. This includes both legal and illegal mining operations, which, according to Iranian President Rouhani, consumes up to 300 MW and 2000 MW respectively. Many of Iran’s cities have been experiencing frequent power outages, and officials have partly held energy-intensive mining operations responsible. Mining entails the use of heavy computing power for verifying cryptocurrency transactions in exchange for which miners get new tokens/coins. (Maziar Motamedi, “Iran bans crypto mining after summer power cuts strike early,” Al Jazeera, 26 May 2021)

On 18 May, Reuters reported that China has banned financial and payment institutions/companies from offering any services relating to cryptocurrency transactions including registration, clearing and settlement and trading. Three industry bodies, the National Internet Finance Association of China, the China Banking Association and the Payment and Clearing Association of China, said in a joint statement: “Recently, cryptocurrency prices have skyrocketed and plummeted, and speculative trading of cryptocurrency has rebounded, seriously infringing on the safety of people’s property and disrupting the normal economic and financial order”. (“China bans financial, payment institutions from cryptocurrency business,” Reuters, 18 May 2021)

What are cryptocurrencies? Why are their values falling after Elon Musk’s tweets? This, and more about cryptos, will be explored in detail in the cover story STIR’s next issue.  

Polar Regions and Climate Change 
The developments of the past two weeks in the polar regions - the Arctic, Antarctica and Himalayas - have demonstrated that climate change is real and threatening wildlife and humans alike. And, in the Arctic, especially, the politics of climate change also manifested as tensions rose between Russia and Norway.

On 20 May, the Guardian reported the findings of an Arctic Council report titled “State of the Arctic Terrestrial Biodiversity”. With the Arctic warming up at a rate twice that of the world, climate change is responsible for the declining wildlife population in the Arctic. On 20 May, in a separate political development, Russian Foreign Minister called for resuming meetings of military experts to address the rising tensions between Russia, Norway and the US as a “warming climate is opening up the Arctic for shipping, fishing, drilling and mining”. (Gloria Dickie, “Climate crisis behind drastic drop in Arctic wildlife populations – report,” Guardian, 20 May 2021) (“Russia calls for military meetings between Arctic states as tensions rise,” Reuters, 20 May 2021)

On 19 May, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that a massive iceberg had separated from the Antarctic ice shelf. With a size of 4320 sq km, it is the largest iceberg in the world currently. The ESA in its report said: “Spotted in recent images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission, the iceberg is around 170 km in length and 25 km wide and is slightly larger than the Spanish island of Majorca.” (“Meet the world’s largest iceberg,” European Space Agency, 19 May 2021)

On May 17, The Third Pole published an article that flagged changing climate and the risk to farming in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. It quoted findings of a study by Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and India-based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) to caution that “Climate change in Uttarakhand will increasingly force people to abandon farming at high altitudes and move to the plains over the next 30 years.” On 29 May, a report in The Hindu based on a recent study published in Global Ecology and Conservation highlighted the decline in bird species in Western Himalayas due to land-use change and climate change. (Kasturi Das, “Climate change forces Uttarakhand farmers to migrate,” The Third Pole, 17 May 2021) (Aswathi Pacha, “Declining forest bird species in Western Himalaya,” The Hindu, 29 May 2021)

S&T Nuggets
by Sukanya Bali and Avishka Ashok

Australia: Carbon emission fell by five per cent in 2020
On 31 May, the Australian Department of Industry said, the carbon emission in 2020 fell by five percent with the substantial increase in wind and solar energy. The emission from the transport sector fell to 12 per cent during the COVID-19 lockdown. In the quarterly update, the Department stated, the “emission fell by 26 million tonnes to 499 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) in 2020 from the previous year.” Australian Energy Minister said: "We are on track to meet and beat our 2030 Paris target." (“Australia’s carbon emission drop 5% in 2020,” Reuters, 31 May 2021)

South Korea hosted P4G summit on climate action and green economic growth
On 30 May, South Korea hosted a two-day virtual P4G summit. This year's summit focused on “Inclusive Green Recovery Towards Carbon Neutrality.” 14-leaders from across joined the discussion. The countries reaffirm their commitment to “limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius degrees in line with the Paris Agreement, reducing dependency on coal-powered energy generation, and better responding to marine plastic issues.” By the end, leaders adopted, The Seoul Declaration which stated: “We reaffirm that the fight against COVID-19 leaves important lessons for the global response to the climate crisis and believe that the pandemic should be overcome through green recovery as a progressive strategy.” (“Global leaders pledge inclusive green recovery at P4G summit,” The Korean Herald, 31 May 2021) (“S.Korea set to host virtual P4G summit on climate,” The Korean Herald, 30 May 2021)

China: Scientists suggest glacier melt reason for Earth’s axial shift
On 19 May, State of the Planet reported that a recent article by scientists from Beijing explained the large polar drifts of Earth in the 1990s. The paper, “Polar Drift in the 1990s Explained by Terrestrial Water Storage Changes, highlighted that the main driver for the axial shift was melting of glaciers caused by global warming, which led to a change in mass distribution. The team also discovered groundwater pumping as one of factors of polar drift. They further suggested that “hydrosphere will continue to cause the Earth’s axis to shift in coming years.” (Kelcie Walther, “Melting Glaciers Have Shifted the Earth’s Axis,” State of the Planet, 19 May 2021)

World’s biggest floating solar farms prepares to begin operations
On 18 May, the Strait Times reported that a Solar Power plant on the Tengeh Reservoir will begin functioning in the latter half of 2021. The Solar farm can accommodate over 45 football fields and is the world’s biggest floating solar farm. The technology used during the construction of the plant includes food-grade certified high density polyethylene which ensures minimum environmental impact and protects the quality of the water in the reservoir.  The farm will be used to power the water treatment plants of the PUB, Singapore’s water agency. Once the farm begins operation, it will give a greater push to the country’s 2030 solar energy target. (“How Singapore built one of the world’s biggest floating solar farms”, Strait Times, 18 May 2021)

First Asian project on greenhouse gas tracking system endorsed by World Meteorological Organization
On 18 May, the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) confirmed the launch of project ‘Inverse Korea’ which is short for inverse modelling for validating and evaluating the reduction of sectoral emissions in the country. With the launch of the project, South Korea became the first Asian country to launch a project that has been officially endorsed by the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System. The project will allow KMA to check where the gases begin, and end based on observed data. The WMO Secretary-General said: “This project will not only play an important role in achieving ‘carbon neutrality 2050’, but it will also greatly contribute to improving the technology of scientific and information systems in the international community.” (“Korea’s greenhouse gas tracking system becomes 1st WMO-endorsed project in Asia”, The Korean Herald, 21 May 2021)

US: Two-firms to develop vehicle to drive on moon’s surface
On 26 May, Reuters reported, General Motors and Lockheed Martin Corp, US firms will be collaborating in developing battery-powered Lunar Terrain Vehicle for NASA's Artemis. The project outlines that “the vehicles can carry human explorers, haul commercial payloads or traverse remote regions of the moon on missions lasting as long as 100 days.” The firms said, the vehicle will use GM battery technology to travel "significantly farther distances." Further vehicle would provide "commercial payload services" and human landings. (“US firms GM, Lockheed aim for the moon with lunar rover venture,” Reuters, 26 May 2021)

Russia and China invite, for joint lunar research station
On 27 May, TASS reported, Russia's State Space Corporation and the China National Space Administration invited partners to explore their project of an international scientific lunar station. Both the countries will unveil the roadmap of the lunar station at GLEX-201. The Roscosmos official said: "We have sent out invitations for cooperation in the international scientific lunar station to a number of our respected partners, including the European Space Agency, for example." He also said, "We are expecting to get the first response from our colleagues to the invitations at bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the GLEX-2021 conference." In March, Roscosmos and CNSA signed an MoU, on behalf of their governments on cooperation in creating an international scientific lunar station. According to TASS, the Roscosmos official also said, the research station aims to develop “cooperation in this project, fostering scientific research exchanges, and assisting in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space in the interests of mankind.” (“Russia, China send invitations to partners to joint unar research station project,” TASS, 27 May 2021)

TikToK: EU consumer complaint against the privacy and safety policy of the app
On 29 May, Reuters reported, TikTok received multiple complaints from EU consumer groups and has been given a month time, to respond the concerns raised over the privacy and safety policies. European Justice Commissioner said: "In the European Union, it is prohibited to target children and minors with disguised advertising such as banners in videos.” He also emphasized on the risk posed by digitalization which has made consumers more vulnerable. The company responded: "We have taken a number of steps to protect our younger users.” They also ensure further discussion with the Irish Consumer Protection Commission and the Swedish Consumer Agency, who will be holding the talks further. (TikTok given a month to respond to claims of EU consumer rights breaches,” Reuters, 28 May 2021)

Reasons behind market failure of semiconductors production and supply
On 24 May, the Brookings podcast spoke about the semiconductor shortages, the causes and the possible duration of this shortage. Semiconductors are the key product used in the production of every electronic equipment. As the world shifted to a work-from-home culture due to the pandemic, there has been an increase in the purchase and use of electrical products leading to an upsurge in the demand for semiconductors. Bitcoin mining has also been blamed for the increase in demand for the chips. However, the pandemic brought the supply chains to a standstill, resulting in a delay in the delivery as well as the production of these chips. The shortage may last for the next two years despite countries ramping up production and sale of semiconductors. (“What’s behind the semiconductor shortage and how long could it last?”, Brookings, 24 May 2021)

Global shortage of nanochips and an attempt to increase production in Japan
On 26 May, the Nikkan Kogyo, a local Japanese newspaper reported that the government in Japan was calling for an investment from Sony group and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC) worth USD 9.2 billion for the establishment of the first 20 nanometre chip plant. A ministry spokesperson, however, denied such plans. Japan is currently facing a shortage of the chips which is essential to maintain international competitiveness and is looking to boost production in the country. A majority of the chips are manufactured in Taiwan and the slowing down of the economy has led to a global chip shortage. (“Japan wants TSMC, Sony to build 20 nanometre chip plant -Nikkan Kogyo”, Reuters, 26 May 2021)
Scientific calculations and innovations made more accessible because of cloud computing
On 25 May, the New York Times reported regarding the effortlessness of developing prototypes and running simulations through cloud computing. With the help of cloud computing, there is an increase in global creativity which helps people experiment with building super-machines like semiconductors, submarines and spacecrafts. The new technology, that is easily available with the help of some monetary funds, reduces the dependance on supercomputers which are not easily accessible. Cloud companies like Google and Amazon are capable of providing high-performance computing hardware that can be on par with the supercomputers in NASA. (“Going to the Moon via the Cloud”, The New York Times, 25 May 2021)

The significance of genome sequencing in tracking spread of the coronavirus variants
On 23 May, the Hindu highlighted the importance of genome sequencing in tracking the numerous variants of COVID-19. The objective behind sequencing is to study the ineffectiveness of antibodies against the newer variants of the coronavirus. Genome sequencing is conducted by making the virus interact with the antibodies of a vaccinated person’s blood samples. The experiment tries to observe the number of antibodies used to kill the virus. The activity will help in understanding the spread of the infection in clusters and also the effectiveness of vaccines against the virus. (“Why is genome sequencing crucial to track SARS-CoV-2 variants?”, The Hindu, 23 May 2021)

Medical help sought by researchers in Wuhan provides support to lab-leak theory
On 23 May, the Wall Street Journal, reported that researchers at the Institute of Virology lab in Wuhan sought medical help in November, few weeks before the outbreak was officially announced. The new information provided the US intelligence has further pushed for a thorough investigation into the lab-leak theory. The report stated that researchers at the lab in Wuhan which studied pathogens and the coronaviruses fell sick with the same symptoms as that of COVID-19. The newly acquired information suggests that a leak from the lab in Wuhan could be the origin of the pandemic. However, the top virologist at the Institute of Virology has claimed that the virus did not leak from her lab. (Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin”, The Wall Street Journal, 23 May 2021)

The health ministry in Japan approves first virotherapy drug to fight cancer
On 24 May, a special committee of the health ministry in Japan gave the green light to sell and produce Teserpaturev, a drug developed by Daiichi Sankyo Co. and others. Teserpaturev is used to treat cancer and is the first virotherapy drug to be accepted in Japan. The virus, which is injected into the cancer cells, replicates and attacks the cancer cells only. The drug was developed by Tomoki Todo, a professor at the Institute of Medical Science in the University of Tokyo, effectively altered the virus to only replicate inside the cancer cell and not the normal cells. The virotherapy drug has shown potential to increase one-year survival rate by 92.3 per cent. (“Japan to approve virotherapy drug for 1st time for cancer treatment”, The Asahi Shimbun, 25 May 2021)

About the authors
Harini Madhusudan and Lokendra Sharma are PhD Scholars in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Avishka Ashok and Sukanya Bali are Research Associates at NIAS.


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