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Focus 2016: The Year of Acceleration

DECCAN CHRONICLE | S. RAGHOTHAM
Published Dec 27, 2015, 12:01 am IST
Updated Mar 26, 2019, 2:21 pm IST
SpaceX is not the first private company to land a rocket stage back safely.
Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope
 Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope

The Chinese calendar calls 2016 the Year of the Monkey. Perhaps it is appropriate for a country currently experiencing economic wild swings, and given both China’s size and its penchant to export, it may well be true for much of the rest of the world, as well. But that’s only economically. In high science and technology, though, the coming year will likely feel less like humanity collectively monkeying about — that we have done for years now — and more like true take-off, in a number of fields.

Why are we so optimistic? As we write this, a private company that began life less than 15 years ago has succeeded in an endeavour that national space agencies have been struggling with for decades – landing a rocket stage back on Earth after launching it into space, vertically and gently.

 

Here’s what happened: The Falcon 9 rocket of SpaceX — founded by Elon Musk, the same guy who also revolutionised online payments with PayPal, cars with Tesla, and hopes to do the same for solar power with Solar City and for Artificial Intelligence with OpenAI – shot up, and while its second stage continued into space to deploy 11 satellites into orbit, its booster stage separated from it, fired its engines and landed back on the earth gracefully, some 10 kilometres from where it was launched.

SpaceX is not the first private company to land a rocket stage back safely. That was accomplished just last month by Blue Origin, another space start-up founded by Musk’s fellow billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos of Amazon. This, by two private space companies, shows up national space agencies such as NASA, whose re-usable launch vehicle the Space Shuttle no longer flies, and India’s ISRO, which is still no further along than technology demonstrations, for what they are – lumbering giants. In the world of 2016, even space belongs to the nimble and the agile. “The Falcon has landed” is just one example of what we are going to witness in all kinds of space this coming year — not just outer space, but also inner space, and cyberspace. It’s the dramatic acceleration of science-based capabilities, thanks due to the coming together of technologies that have been in development for decades, new business models, and innovation.

Notice also in the Falcon story that the pace of innovation is accelerating. Before the Internet, digital technologies and this group of new age billionaires – not just Musk and Bezos but Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the Virgin Richard Branson, etc., —technologies took at least 30-40 years to mature and reach scale. The Internet itself took more than 30 years. Musk’s ventures seem to take less than half that time — SpaceX and Tesla were founded around the same time, in 2002 and 2003 respectively, and are already respectable businesses with proven technologies.

Thanks to advances in medicine, genomics, devices and digital technologies – again coming together with new business models and innovation — humanity is also on the verge, at the end of 2015, of breaking through in the treatment of deadly diseases, notably Cancer, Alzhei-mer’s and other mental illnesses.
All in all, this should be the Year of absolute Acceleration!

Things to look forward to in 2016

World is not enough
Year 2016 — private ‘conquest’ of space begins. Companies founded or funded by the likes of Elon Musk (PayPal), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder) et al will take the first real steps towards making space a business. PlanetLabs will have 250 small earth imaging satellites, called Doves – “enough satellites in orbit to image the entire globe, every single day”; OneWeb will launch a 720-satellite constellation in low-earth orbit for global broadband delivery. But it’s not all business. If you are rich enough, you can holiday, too, in sub-orbital space onboard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo.

Your viral history in just one test
It’s the ultimate blood test. VirScan, expected to go commercial in 2016, requires just one drop, but it can detect the entire history of virus infections you have ever suffered. Some 206 viruses and 1,000 different strains are known to affect humans. Some, merely by their presence in the body even without causing any immediate illness. But if a virus has been in the body at any time, VirScan will know. Being developed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it has been used on 569 people in the US, Thailand, South Africa and Peru, so far.

The Plutonium Promise
India is all set to take a giant nuclear step in 2016. It’s called the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, coming up in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. It’s been delayed, so much so that an IIT professor once said it would never go critical, rather the people building this ‘Indian pipedream’ would become critical! But the 500 MW PFBR is finally. Why’s India doing this? Well, a kilogram of coal generates 3 kWh of power, 1 kg of oil, 4 kWh, a kilogram of uranium, burnt in our existing reactors, generates 50,000 kWh. The power potential of a kilogram of plutonium is 60 million kWh!

Ni hou, anybody out there? (China to go hunting for ET)
By June, China will have the world’s largest radio telescope. Called the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), it’s the size of 30 football fields — with its parabolic reflector 1,640 feet in diameter, made up of 4,500 36-foot long panels. It’s like a mega TV antenna, able to scan twice the area of the sky than the hitherto largest radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, “like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe”. The US, apparently, is worried.

It won’t be nice weather
In 2014, they said it was the hottest year on record. Ditto in 2015. Now, they are saying 2016 will beat 2015. In fact, global surface temperature level is expected to rise by about 0.14C. Worse, 2016 is also expected to be the ‘peak year’ for the El Nino weather system. Which means, together with the rising surface temperature, the warming oceans will bring more disasters, especially to coastal cities around the world. Chennai, prepare for the next summer and monsoon now! The UN has warned of months of extreme weather in many parts of the world, with intense storms, droughts and floods. World food production will take a big hit, too. Brace for even higher food prices next year! 

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