Sputtering Russian Space Program Fails To Step Into Shuttle Void

Last week's crash of Russian space supply ship Progress is the fourth Russian launch failure in nine months. With NASA’s Space Shuttle now decommissioned, there are concerns over whether Russia can be relied on to deliver supplies to the Internat

The Progress spacecraft that tumbled from the Soyuz U rocket
The Progress spacecraft that tumbled from the Soyuz U rocket
Ivan Safranov

MOSCOW - The list of recent Russia space mission duds has grown troubling long.

Last week, the Soyuz U rocket, carrying the unmanned Progress cargo load to the International Space Station (ISS), launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazhakstan, and was expected to decouple nine minutes later. But after experiencing propulsion problems, the Progress ended up tumbling to earth in the Altai Republic, Siberia, after the third stage of its rocket carrier failed.

Last December, Russia was forced to crash three satellites into the Pacific Ocean worth a total of $140 million that were crucial to its GLONASS navigation system, a rival to the American-made GPS. That failed mission led to the reprimand of the head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Anatoly Perminov, who promised to get the Glonass devices into orbit. But soon after, he quit, and the orbit is still incomplete.

In February, there was a launch failure of the rocket carrying the earth-mapping satellite Geo IK-2. Due to booster rocket problems, it was put into the wrong orbit for three months before burning out in the upper reaches of the earth's atmosphere.

After this $134 million failure, the deputy head of Roscosmos was reprimanded.

And early this month, a multi-million dollar communications satellite was placed outside its intended orbit, due to a motor failure, prompting Russia to ground its chief Proton-M rocket for commercial and military launches.

Too few rocket specialists

This all adds up to a half-billion dollars worth of errors for the Russian space programme this year alone. After the most recent mishap, Roscosmos has not yet said whether it would suspend a manned mission to the space station planned for September, but the Soyuz rocket is the only one that can carry people and supplies to the ISS. Progress had on board three tons of supplies, food and water, medical instruments and spare parts for the American segment of the station.

The American space shuttle completed its last flight, and NASA had struck a $750 million deal with the Russian space agency to supply the ISS using the Soyuz and the Progress. Roscosmos insists the ISS will not be affected as there are adequate supplies of food and water on the station for several months.

Although it has set up an investigation committee, it has long been known that the Russian space program needs substantial change. "The crisis in the department is not new, but after 15 years of stagnation, the agency got the money required to put together a decent space program," says Igor Lisov, an expert from the industry magazine Space News. "You need to remember that we inherited a bad legacy. There are too few specialists. Now all hopes are pinned on the youth who despite it all, are coming into the department and getting ready to take over from the previous generation. But as long as they are paid peanuts, there is little hope for progress."

Meanwhile industry expert Konstantin Kredenko said the problems stem from the faults left by the previous management. "All the failures are not with the space devices themselves, rather they are with the rocket and its components. This is not surprising. Those very rockets have not been changed for years."

And again, without the proper staff and training, not much can change. "(They) got rid of all our rocket specialists, but we are not looking for new ones. This is the problem with our system."

Read the original article in Russian

Photo- Wikipedia

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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