The Race To Clean Up Space Is On.

                 by David Parmer / Tokyo

Until recently we thought of space like we used to think of the oceans of the world; vast, uncharted and immune to humankind’s stupidity and greed. But as we have learned from the polluted nature of our oceans, we are not free to dump our trash into the sea; we are now learning that we cannot use space as a dumping ground without serious consequences either. But this is exactly what is happening.

When the first satellite went into orbit in 1958 no one imagined the problem of space junk that we now face. Space junk can be anything from spent rocket boosters to old satellites to nuts and bolts, pieces of spacecraft, and even paint. All circulating and low earth orbit (LEO), and all leading to a potentially-catastrophic tipping point called the Kesler Syndrome, named after former NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, which states that the amount of space junk will eventually increase to become a debris field disrupting scientific research and prohibiting off-planet exploration.

Reports suggest that there are between 30,000 to 600,000 pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth as well as 100,000 objects of 1mm in size. Another estimate puts the weight of trash floating in low Earth orbit to be 8,000 tons. The Kesler Syndrome suggests that these discarded spacecraft and related parts will impact each other creating the impenetrable debris field mentioned above.

Moreover, it looks like things will get a lot worse before they get better. Corporations are now planning to launch Mega Constellations of satellites or spacecraft. Corporations?

  • Space X Starlink
  • Amazon Kuiper
  • One Web

These folks plan to launch hundreds, nay thousands of objects into orbit around the Earth in the near future. One Web has a target of 600 satellites and 150 are reported to already be in orbit.

What looks like the answer to the problem? Cleanup is one answer, but the question seems to be which technology will work and be most useful. The European Space Agency has a project called Clear Space-1 to be launched in 2025, but Japanese Astroscale Holdings has gotten a significant jump on the market by launching ESLA-d, and end-of-life satellite removal system on March 22,2021 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. ELSA-d is to demonstrate the feasibility of capturing and eliminating satellites whose service life has come to an end.

There are other technologies on the drawing board including lasers to destroy defunct objects. One drawback to the Astroscale solution is that there are many different types of debris in space, and not all will be responsive to this technology. Government regulation is also in effect for satellites mandating that they be programmed for a so-called “graveyard orbit” at the end of their service life.

Is there a real commercial opportunity here for the right corporation or consortium? Perhaps there is, but the real problem is to get some effective system or systems to take out the trash before it is too late. Time, it seems, is NOT on our side in this case.

Photo: Roscosmos via flickr

Tokyo 2021 – Off Again, On Again, Off Again?

                       by David Parmer /Tokyo

Just when you thought it was safe to make plans for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it isn’t– or maybe it is. Mid-April 2021 and the bottom line is nobody really knows what will happen.

The problem? The global COVID 19 pandemic still rages. And Japan faces a fourth wave of infections. Japan’s rate of vaccination is S-L-O-W. A very small percentage of the population has been vaccinated or even tested as of mid-April 2021. This does not bode well for the Olympics happening in less than 100 days.

The IOC and Japan Inc. are ready to hold the Olympics. However, most Japanese favor cancelling the 2021 games, and a recent Kyodo news poll supports this. Apparently Japan’s medical community as well does not support the games.

It is not as if the Tokyo Organizing Committee is asleep at the wheel. They are not: their website shows extensive plans to have a safe event. “Playbooks” are downloadable for sponsors, competitors, and journalists laying out a stringent set of guidelines for how to conduct themselves to prevent the spread of COVID 19 during the games. But it seems the cards are stacked against them.

What could turn this situation around? Perhaps a massive and unprecedented drive to get the majority of the population tested and vaccinated. Given enough time, the Japanese could do this. But to move the bureaucracy and to inspire people to cooperate would require the type of dynamic thinking and dynamic leadership that is not native to the Japanese mindset. Given time, Japan could do it. But there is just not enough time, and maybe more importantly, enough will to get it done.

Olympics? See you in Beijing next year. Maybe.

Kyodo News Poll on Vaccine and Olympics

Tokyo 2020 Playbooks

Photo: IOC Facebook Page


Post-COVID Air Travel Will Likely Favor LCC.

All indications are that when the post-COVID travel boom takes place, that it will be Low Cost Carriers (LCC) that will lead the way.

Full Service Carriers (FSC) and legacy carriers will eventually figure out how to prosper in the post-COVID world, but the LCCs will be ahead of them. It will be a volatile and interesting business background as the airline industry restructures for the “new world” of travel.

LCC are in a good position for a number of reasons. By nature they are frugal and used to working in a lean manner. It also appears that domestic travel will rebound (is rebounding) faster than international travel. LCC specialize in affordable domestic travel for the most part.

FSC and legacy carriers generally have long-haul international routes. ( Although there is a long-haul LCC model, current COVID and future post-COVID conditions will not favor them initially, and they will basically be in the same situation as the legacy carriers).

Customer base is also different for LCC – they favor leisure travelers. The legacy carriers and flag carriers cater to the business traveller. Until the pandemic is considered over by most countries, long-haul travel with high seat occupancy will remain a thing of the past.

All carriers have one favorable wind behind them, and that is a massive worldwide pent up demand for private and commercial travel. When this demand is allowed to play itself out, not just the airline industry, but the tourist and hospitality industries as well will be collateral benefactors in a worldwide travel and spending frenzy.

So for the industry and its players large and small, it is not wait and see, or wait and pray; boom times will surely come, and it will be those organizations that have restructured, adapted, and survived that will reap the greatest benefits.

Person of Interest: Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela New Leader at WTO.

On March 1, 2021 the World Trade Organization got a new boss, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela. With her election, two precedents were set: the new chief of the WTO is both the first woman and the first African to hold the post.

Okonjo-Iwela served as Nigerian finance minister and has spent 25 years with the World Bank where she was managing director. She is a Harvard graduate who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Regional Economics and Development from MIT.

While the WTO post is a brilliant cap to a distinguished career, the job will also require her skill and experience to revitalize the WTO, make it relevant once again and position it to handle twenty-first century challenges like the COVID pandemic. In her first days in office she said her priority is to work with members to deal with health and economic issues brought about by the pandemic.

Issues on her table include brokering a fisheries deal and expediting vaccine transfer worldwide. World Health Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that his intention to meet the new director of the WTO to discuss with her the question of vaccine production and distribution.

After gridlock and stalemate at the WTO it may be the right time for a new, qualified and ambitious chief to set priorities and lead the way. Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela looks like the right person for the job.

Photo: Courtesy of WTO

CATL China, A Company That Should Be On Your Radar.

If you have never heard of Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) or its CEO Dr. Robin Zeng it is not surprising. The company was only listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange in 2017. And Dr. Zeng doesn’t seem to need the spotlight to get his work done.  However, the company that seemingly came from nowhere is one to watch.

First, CATL makes three main categories of products:

  • Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles
  • Energy storage systems
  • Battery management systems

The most important category is the Lithium-ion batteries to power a new generation of electric vehicles. Company headquarters are in Ningde in Fujian province, Zeng’s hometown. Worldwide the company has around 24,000 employees and an impressive list of customers.

Customers include such leading automotive brands such as:

  • Mercedes Benz
  • BMW
  • Volkswagen
  • Geely
  • Honda
  • Toyota
  • Tesla

CATL’s first overseas operation was in Germany in 2018 in a major tie-up with Mercedes Benz. A new $5billion factory in Indonesia was announced last year. In addition to a factory new Shanghai that manufactures batteries for Tesla China, three new domestic factories were announced in 2020 to be located in Sichuan, Jiangsu, and Fujian provinces. So CATL is on the move, and the positive reaction from investors resulting in a sharp rise in stock prices just confirms it.

CATL is said to be producing LFP (Lithium-Iron phosphate) batteries for TESLA which could be up to 20% less, resulting in a significant price reduction for the sticker price on a TESLA Model 3 in China.

CATL is also working on a new, long-life battery for TESLA that could have a 1.2 million mile (2 million KM) life span. This would not only bring prices down, but also move the Electric Vehicle automotive sector forward.

 Batteries that have long life, longer range and shorter charging life with built-in sustainability are on the cards for the near future. Without a doubt, the leader in this field will be Dr. Robin Zeng’s China based CATL, a company to keep an eye on.

Photo: CEO Dr. Robin Zeng, CATL website

Person of Interest: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

by David Parmer / Tokyo

New faces in Washington are no surprise, but with the Biden administration we get a collection of new faces that have been seen before in the nation’s capitol. Many of the Biden folks have been at the top tier before but just not in the spotlight. General Lloyd Austin was around before, as was Anthony Blinken and even Avril Haines. Now, these first tier players have moved from assistant this and deputy that to Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence. And then there is Jake Sullivan.

Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor has been around in the thin oxygen of national politics and policy for “a while” and gotten his ticket punched. Mr. Sullivan graduated from Yale University, did an MA at Oxford, and cycled back to Yale for his law degree. He practiced law in Minnesota where he worked for Senator Amy Klobuchar.

He then worked for both Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama and worked as Clinton’s Director of Policy Planning. He worked for Obama as Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to then Vice President Joe Biden. In 2013 he worked on the JCPOA or Iran Nuclear Deal. In 2016 Mr. Sullivan was again working for Clinton, this time during her presidential campaign. After a stint back in the private sector, in 2020, Sullivan was selected by President-Elect Biden to be his National Security Advisor. 

The Biden administration quickly undid a lot of Trump-era policy and infrastructure, but remains fairly consistent on China policy. Mr. Sullivan signaled no big changes in China policy during his confirmation hearing and even went on to support some of the views of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including the question of the violation of human rights of the Uighur minority.

In Biden’s Washington it looks like the band is back together. Biden’s team is deep with experience and peopled with appointees that the president knows and trusts. Former President Donald Trump might call Biden’s team a return of the “deep state.” Around Washington (and around the world) many people are happy about this, and happy to see new-old faces like Jake Sullivan hard at work.

Photo: The White House via flickr.




“Iran Does Not Seek A Nuclear Weapon.”

“Iran does not seek a nuclear weapon. If we wanted to build a nuclear weapon, we could have done it some time ago, but we decided that nuclear weapons would not augment our security and are in contradiction to our ideological views.” (Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif)

                          by David Parmer / Tokyo

America’s new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Sunday, January 31, in an NBC news interview, that Iran could be “weeks” away from having enough fissile nuclear material to build an atomic weapon. Blinken’s assessment was soundly rebutted by Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with CNN’s Christian Amanpour the following day, February 1.

Zarif said that if Iran wanted a nuclear weapon, it would already have one, but this was not their intention. In the interview with Amanpour, Zarif was asked about Iran and the US negotiating their differences. Zarif said that the US must come back into compliance with the JCPOA “Iran Deal.”

Certain things were NOT agreed upon at the time of the negotiating and signing of the agreement; Iran has concerns about US arms sales to the region which were not on the table. Iran’s missile program which was of interest to the US was not on the table (Zarif did not mention the word “missiles.”)

The US and Iran are at a stalemate, and the foreign minister offered a possible solution. The top EU official, Josep Borrell, Chairman of the Joint Commission could broker an agreement by saying what each side must do. This would be a face-saving mechanism to eliminate such thinking as “before we negotiate, you must…” on both sides.

Zarif noted that time was running out for the US. The Iranian parliament has approved further drawing back by Iran from the 2015 JCPOA as is its right when the other side is not in compliance. As for existing nuclear material enriched to a higher percentage, it could be dealt with swiftly and eliminated if conditions were favorable and concessions on both sides were made.

From the two meetings with the press, it was clear that Iran was better prepared and knew what it wants and how to move things forward. Secretary Blinken simply repeated an old contention about nuclear weapons common under the Trump administration.

Blinken did not seem either well informed or well prepared to deal with one of America’s three vital foreign policy challenges. Even given the fact that Blinken must staff, coordinate and re-build a hollowed-out State department, his first appearance out of the gate was not very impressive. The problem is that US-Iran relations need the full attention of the US government, and as Mr. Zarif has said: time for the US to act is not unlimited.


Happy Lunar New Year 2021!

The Year of the Ox will be celebrated in China, throughout Asia, and around the world on February 12th, 2021. The New Year is always a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. We here at RG21 wish all of you a great year! Thanks for being with us last year and we look forward to providing you with our research, opinion and insights in the coming year. Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Photo: Emma Nagle via flickr