At some point during this period, the USA is struck by the most devastating earthquake in its history
The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a 600 mile-long converging plate boundary stretching from northern California to southern British Columbia. The fault causes a major earthquake about once every 300 years. Compared to other fault lines, this is an unusually long return time – resulting in greater stress build-up and stronger subsequent earthquakes. The last major event (a so-called megathrust quake) took place in 1700 and was estimated to have had a magnitude of at least 9.0 on the Richter scale.
Since then, the movement of the two plates has steadily built up pressure. In the first half of the 21st century, the fault exceeds the vast majority of previous time intervals in recorded history.* During this time, the plates finally slip, resulting in the single most devastating earthquake in United States history.*** It is centred on the state of Oregon, with a duration of several minutes, inflicting deadly damage to major population centres like Portland, Seattle, Olympia and even Vancouver and Victoria. Of course, many structures have been retrofitted and are able to withstand the earthquake, along with the majority of newer buildings. However, years of economic trouble, as well as a general inexperience of large earthquakes, have left many structures vulnerable.
Bridges and highways collapse, while the ground in the Seattle bay area liquefies, dragging buildings underwater. Broken gas mains and power lines spark many fires. The quake generates massive tsunamis,* which inundate coastal communities from California to Alaska. These giant waves are sent racing across the Pacific, causing damage as far away as Hawaii and Japan. Millions are left without power, while emergency responders struggle to adapt to the scale of the disaster. The death toll quickly reaches into the thousands, while the financial cost exceeds $100 billion.
some point during this period, a major earthquake hits California
had been warning for years that it wasn’t a matter of “if”
– but “when” a major earthquake
would strike the Los Angeles basin.* This particular quake is of sufficient magnitude
to cause many billions of dollars’ worth of economic damage, with much loss of human life. Thousands of buildings
are destroyed and there is widespread damage to roads, bridges and other infrastructure. This disaster is smaller than the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake mentioned earlier, but still relatively devastating for southern California.
Exascale computers are deployed
An exaFLOP is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (a million trillion, or one quintillion) floating point operations per second. The world’s top supercomputers are now reaching this speed, which is a 1,000-fold improvement over a petaFLOP machine.
The growth of computing power had followed an exponential trend for many years. However, a slowdown in the rate of progress was observed during the second half of the 2010s. It had earlier been predicted that exaFLOP machines would arrive by the end of the decade, but this schedule appeared to slip as technical and funding issues were encountered.
IBM unveiled “Summit” – featuring a peak performance of 200 petaFLOPS – which became the world’s fastest supercomputer in June 2018, a title it would retain into 2019 and 2020. Several challengers were waiting in the wings, including three exaFLOP machines being developed by China, three by the USA and others by the European Union, India, Japan and Taiwan. These would be deployed during the early and mid-2020s.
China was the first country to achieve a “peak” exaFLOP machine, but there were ongoing delays in reaching a sustained exaFLOP performance. By 2021, this is finally demonstrated, using processors designed and manufactured domestically. Among the new machines is Tianhe-3, successor to the Tianhe-2.* After China, the next countries to demonstrate a sustained exaFLOP performance are the United States and Japan.*
Exascale computing leads to revolutionary advances in a number of fields – allowing simulations of greater scale, complexity and duration than ever before. Neuroscience is one area of particular note, as it becomes possible to simulate the entire human brain in real-time, down to the level of individual neurons. Subsequent upgrades to existing machines, along with entirely new machines, enable further orders of magnitude gains in performance and pave the way to zettaFLOP supercomputers in the 2030s.
The first Arabian mission to Mars
This year sees the first mission to Mars by an Arabian country – in this case, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which sends an unmanned probe. The Arab League nations have established a pan-Arab space agency by now, headed by the UAE. This functions in a similar way to the European Space Agency.
The UAE had already invested more than 20 billion dirham (US$5.4 billion) in the space sector by 2014. This further expansion was aimed at diversifying its economy away from reliance on hydrocarbons and fostering new talent in technology and aerospace fields. It was also motivated by concerns over national security and the growing importance of satellite data, mobile communications, Earth mapping and observation. Thanks to its hi-tech facilities, Dubai is now a regional hub for satellite design and construction.* The Mars mission coincides with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s formation. It is helped by the fact that space projects are becoming increasingly cheap, easy and reliable, through a new generation of rockets and fuels.
In 2014, ruler of the UAE’s emirate of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said the mission would prove the Arab world was still capable of delivering scientific contributions to humanity, despite the many conflicts across the Middle East: “Our region is a region of civilization. Our destiny is – once again – to explore, to create, to build and to civilize.”*
NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars
In July 2020, NASA launched an unmanned space probe – Mars 2020 – bound for the Red Planet. This carried a rover, called Perseverance, to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples for return to Earth. The mission would include technology demonstrations to prepare for future human missions.
The design, based on the earlier Curiosity mission that arrived in 2012, featured improvements such as better cameras (a total of 23), refined wheel dimensions and tread design, and a heavier sample capacity. Two microphones were also fitted on the rover to record sounds of the descent from orbit, as well as subsequent surface activities.
The probe arrives in February 2021* and touches down in Jezero crater, just north of the equator. This 49 km (30.4 mi) diameter crater is believed to have been a lake in the distant past, reaching as deep as 250 metres (820 ft). It contains a fan-delta deposit rich in clays, and the lake existed when valley networks were forming on Mars, making it a geologically rich site.
A small helicopter accompanies Perseverance. This solar-powered drone, Ingenuity, serves two functions: scouting ahead and calculating the best driving route; and spotting interesting targets for study. Although limited to altitudes of 10 m (33 ft) above ground, it can cover a maximum horizontal distance of 600 metres (2,000 ft) for each three-minute flight. NASA later adapts this drone design, creating more advanced versions for use in future human missions.
The rover has seven scientific instruments, including a Sample Caching System for picking up rocks and dust, with capacity for up to 30 samples. Its 23 cameras provide a wide array of views and observation methods, from extreme close-up analysis to distant panoramas and zoom capabilities. A “fetch” rover for returning the samples is launched in 2026, with landing and surface operations in 2029 and the return window allowing delivery to Earth in 2031.
A key instrument on Perseverance is MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment). This technology demonstration achieves the conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen for use in rocket fuel and breathable air – essential for human missions in the future.
The world’s largest insect swarm re-emerges
Brood X is the largest of 15 groups of 17-year cicadas. Its members, all of the genus Magicicada, tunnel to the surface en masse, mate and lay eggs, then die. This is the biggest swarm of insects in the world. The area covered stretches from New York, down the East Coast to Georgia and west to Illinois.
The last time Brood X emerged was in 2004.* Countless billions of the insects infest the Eastern USA, with any existing tranquillity ruined by their incessant buzzing during the mating ritual, which is audible from a mile away. Despite the nuisance it causes, the emergence of this swarm is relatively short-lived. It also delivers vital nutrients to the topsoil, leaving the native environment noticeably better in the weeks after the ensuing die-off.
The world’s first artificial kidney
Kidneys perform a vital role in the human body: filtering blood, removing excess fluid and eliminating waste products. They are essential to the urinary system, the regulation of blood pressure (via salt and water balance) and the production of various hormones.
Kidney diseases are diverse, but their primary causes over the long-term are diabetes and high blood pressure. Among the most serious clinical conditions is end-stage renal disease (ESRD), affecting 2 million people worldwide. This can lead to complete failure of the kidneys to work at a level needed for day-to-day life. In the later stages of the illness, the only treatment options are dialysis or transplant. Although dialysis can be life-saving, it lasts for only a short time and then the procedure must be repeated. Organ transplants can help patients to regain their strength and mobility, allowing a return to more normal activities; but there is often a shortage of donors, plus the risk of rejection by their immune system. Stem cell treatments are beginning to emerge,* but have yet to include a complete replacement for kidneys.
A third option has been explored, however, which is now becoming available for the first time: fully artificial kidneys. This idea was researched at the University of California, San Francisco, leading to a first prototype model in 2010.* After a further decade of research, the final stage of human clinical trials is being completed as the kidney moves from testing to public availability.*
Using nanotechnology components, the device can mimic almost all the vital functions of the kidney, while a bioreactor performs other renal activities. This is done without the need for pumps or electrical power – filtration is pushed along by the body’s own blood pressure. Furthermore, the device has an indefinite lifespan, unlike real transplanted kidneys which typically last for 10 to 12 years.
China’s first mission to Mars
During the first two decades of the 21st century, China’s National Space Administration had focused heavily on the Moon. Its Chang’e series of lunar probes achieved great success.
China began a Mars program in 2009 in partnership with Russia. However, the Russian spacecraft Fobos-Grunt, carrying a Chinese orbiter called Yinghuo-1, crashed in January 2012, days after lift-off. China subsequently began its own independent Mars project, with a mission approved by authorities in 2016.
The new Chinese Mars probe would consist of an orbiter, lander and a rover deployed on the surface of Mars, with scientific objectives being to search for evidence of both current and past life, and to assess the planet’s environment. It was named Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission, designated by a shorter name of Huoxing-1, abbreviated to HX-1 (Huoxing simply means “Mars” in Chinese).
The spacecraft is launched aboard a Long March 5 heavy lift rocket in July 2020, with a total payload mass of 5,000 kg (11,000 lb). Orbital insertion at Mars is scheduled for February 2021, with a surface landing date of 23rd April 2021.* The lander carrying the rover is designed to use a parachute, retrorockets, and an airbag to achieve a soft landing, which is planned to occur in Utopia Planitia – a region known to contain a large amount of underground water ice.
The rover is powered by solar panels, and is fitted with Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR), to scan as deep as 100 m (330 ft) below the surface. It can also perform chemical analyses on Martian soil, and look for biomolecules and biosignatures. The six-wheeled, 200 kg vehicle is designed to last three months.*
The orbiter and rover together carry a total of 12 instruments. In addition to its powerful ground radar, the rover includes a Multi-Spectrum Camera (MSC) and a Navigation and Topography Camera (NTC). The orbiter, meanwhile, is equipped with a High Resolution Camera (HRC) to obtain images with a resolution down to just 2 m from a 400 km orbit. The surface rover includes a demonstration of technology needed for a Mars sample return mission proposed for the 2030s.
The first legged robot on the Moon
Asagumo is a spider-like robot developed by UK firm Spacebit and designed to explore the Moon’s surface. Its cube-shaped body is just 10 cm x 10 cm and its total weight is only 1.3 kg, making it the smallest rover to ever explore the lunar environment.
Despite the robot’s small size, it can explore parts of the Moon that other landers cannot reach, using four legs for greater mobility. It lands in a region called Lacus Mortis (“Lake of Death”), a plain of basaltic lava flows in the northeastern part of the Moon, where it operates for up to 13 days. Here it uses 3D LIDAR to gather a range of data. It also comes equipped with cameras including full HD video.
The mission includes several firsts – it becomes the first to launch aboard the Vulcan Centaur, a new two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle under development by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from 2014-2021; the first mission for Peregrine (the spacecraft that carries and deploys the Asagumo robot); the first trip to the Moon’s surface by a UK-built craft; and the first time a legged robot has explored another world.*
Although it travels only 10 metres in two weeks, subsequent versions are launched in 2023 and 2026 with more advanced capabilities. These missions allow multiple robots to travel greater distances and to investigate lunar lava tubes to see if they are viable locations in which to build future lunar habitats.
Credit: Serhii Harbaruk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games
The Olympic Games are held in the summer of 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.* The other candidate cities had been Madrid and Istanbul. Prior to Tokyo’s selection by the Japanese Olympic Committee, Hiroshima expressed an interest in hosting, but later withdrew their plans to bid. Tokyo had hosted the games 50 years previously and its National Olympic Stadium is once again used for the main venue.
In August 2013, the Governor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, stated that the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima would not pose a threat to Tokyo’s ability to host the Games. He stated that “the water in Tokyo is safe, and we have released this data on our website” and that “radiation levels are no different than in London or Paris.” A letter of assurance over the issue was later sent to the IOC members.
The Olympics were originally scheduled to take place from 24th July to 9th August 2020, with preliminary events starting on 22nd July. On 24th March 2020, however, the IOC and the Tokyo Organising Committee officially announced that due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics would be delayed to 2021 (marking the first time that an entire Olympics had ever been postponed). The Games are still publicly branded and marketed as “Tokyo 2020”, even with the change in scheduling.
Tokyo becomes the first Asian city to host the Olympic Games twice. The previous occasion was in 1964. Its slogan for the 2021 event is “Discover Tomorrow” and robots are featured during the games in reflection of this.
The James Webb Space Telescope is launched
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the long-awaited successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope. Named after James E. Webb – the NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968 – it is developed as a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.
The JWST is located near Earth–Sun Lagrangian point L2 with an orbital distance that varies from 374,000 km (232,000 mi) to as far away as 1,500,000 km (930,000 mi). It is designed to offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible light through the mid-infrared range. While the Hubble Space Telescope had a 4.5 m2 (48 sq ft) primary mirror, the JWST’s collecting area is nearly six times larger at 25 m2 (270 sq ft). This is composed of 18 hexagonal mirror segments working in unison. In terms of magnification, it is 100 times more powerful than Hubble, making it capable of seeing the very first generation of stars that ignited less than 200 million years after the Big Bang – a time when the universe was only 1.4% of its current age. If a bumblebee was placed on the Moon’s surface, the JWST would be able to spot the insect both in reflected light, and from its body heat.* A large sunshield keeps the telescope’s instruments below 50 K (−220 °C; −370 °F).
The JWST has four main scientific goals:
• To search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe after the Big Bang
• To study the formation and evolution of galaxies
• To understand the formation of stars and planetary systems
• To study planetary systems and the origins of life
The JWST was first proposed in 1996, at which time its cost was estimated at $0.5 billion, with a launch date of 2007. Over the years, however, the costs began to spiral upwards and the schedule faced major delays. By 2020, the project had mushroomed to $10 billion, with a launch date of late 2021.*
First uncrewed maiden flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)
The Space Launch System (SLS) is an expendable launch vehicle in the “super heavy-lift” class, developed from 2011 onwards and intended to supersede the retired Space Shuttle as NASA’s flagship vehicle.
Initially designed to carry 70 metric tons (150,000 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO), the SLS later exceeded that requirement by a significant margin, with a rated payload capacity of 95 metric tons (209,000 lb). Future versions, known as Block 2, would have upgrades including advanced boosters, with an even greater LEO capability of more than 130 metric tons (290,000 lb). For comparison, the earlier Space Shuttle program of 1981 to 2011 had a maximum payload capacity of only 27.5 tons (60,600 lb), or about 21% of the SLS Block 2.
The SLS was to become the primary launch vehicle of NASA’s deep space exploration plans – including crewed lunar flights of the Artemis program and a subsequent follow-on human mission to Mars. It would also be used for constructing a new space station in orbit around the Moon.
A first uncrewed maiden flight occurs in late 2021,* which is followed by a crewed lunar flyby in 2022. Additional launches include a Block 1 Cargo flight that delivers the Europa Clipper probe to Jupiter via a direct Hohmann transfer orbit. The human missions to lunar orbit and beyond make use of a partially reusable module atop the SLS, known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV), which can support a crew of six on long-duration missions.
While the SLS is extremely powerful (featuring the highest ever total thrust at launch), the project is criticised for its cost, in comparison to new and emerging commercial rockets, which can also provide greater reusability – such as those developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin. This forces a rethink of NASA’s funding as the private sector takes on an increasingly large role in spaceflight, contributing to an industry worth $1 trillion by the late 2030s.
First flight of the New Glenn reusable rocket
New Glenn (named after the late U.S. astronaut, John Glenn) is a heavy-lift orbital launch vehicle developed by Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. The booster stage is designed to be reusable, cutting launch costs and making it a competitor to SpaceX.
Previously, Blue Origin had developed the New Shepard – a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL), crew-capable rocket. Prototype testing in 2006, followed by full-scale engine development in the early 2010s, led to a first flight in 2015. Reaching an altitude of 93 km (58 miles), this uncrewed demonstration was deemed partially successful, as the onboard capsule was recovered via parachute landing, while the booster stage crashed, and was not recovered. By 2019, a further 11 test flights had taken place, all successfully landing and recovering the booster stage.
The New Shepard, with a height of 18 m (59 ft) and only a tiny payload,* fell into the sub-orbital class of rockets. By contrast, its successor would be more than five times as tall on the launch platform. New Glenn, standing 95 m (313 ft), dwarfed the earlier New Shepard and was designed to carry 45,000 kg (99,000 lb) to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and 13,000 kg (29,000 lb) to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).
Blue Origin began working on the New Glenn in 2012, and publicly revealed its design and specifications in 2016. The vehicle, described as a two-stage rocket with a diameter of 7 m (23 ft), would be powered by seven BE-4 engines (equivalent to 21 Boeing 747s). Bezos now reportedly sold $1 billion worth of Amazon.com stock annually – a figure that doubled by the end of the decade – in order to fund Blue Origin.
By 2019, Blue Origin had gained five customers for New Glenn flights, including a multi-launch contract with Telesat for its broadband constellation. All of these launches would feature a reusable first stage, meaning the booster would return to Earth and land vertically,* just like the New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle that preceded it.
A first launch of the New Glenn occurs in 2021, from a reconstructed and improved Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) in Florida.* Following stage separation, the first stage flies back to Earth and lands nearly 1,000 km downrange on a moving ship. The second stage engines ignite and the 7-metre fairing separates. The mission is complete when the payload is delivered safely to orbit.
Alongside the New Glenn, Jeff Bezos had even greater ambitions. In 2019, he unveiled Blue Origin’s longer-term vision for space, which included a lunar lander known as Blue Moon. This could deliver up to 4,500 kg (9,900 lb) to the Moon’s surface and potentially astronauts too, using a New Glenn as the launch vehicle – in combination with ascent and transfer stages developed by other companies.**