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Breakthrough Energy makes a big bet on reusable rockets

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the multibillion-dollar clean-tech initiative created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is leading a $65 million funding round to back Kent, Wash.-based Stoke Space’s effort to create a new breed of fully reusable rockets — and believe it or not, there’s a climate change angle.

“There is no better way to see the Earth and the severity of its climate challenges than looking at the entire globe from space,” Carmichael Roberts, co-leader of Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ investment committee, said today in a news release.

“Imagine being able to detect wildfires in any country within minutes, identifying oil and gas methane emissions in real time for remediation, or verifying carbon stocks globally to enable large-scale carbon offset markets,” Roberts said. “These are just a few of the far-reaching opportunities that greater access to space can provide through advanced satellite technology.”

Roberts said rocket reusability could overcome two of the barriers to such applications. “Stoke’s unique vehicle design and operational capabilities provide a path to achieving ultra-low-cost, fast-turnaround launch for dedicated orbital delivery,” he said.

The rocket business isn’t known as an environmentally friendly industry — especially when toxic chemicals like hypergolics and perchlorates come into play, and when thousands of pieces of space junk litter the sky. But Stoke Space’s co-founder and CEO, Andy Lapsa, told me that his company wants to change all that.

“There are a lot of unsustainable rocket practices that have been done through history,” Lapsa said. “I think we’re in general getting smarter about that, and a reusable second stage is a big, important part of that. We can’t be dumping rockets in the ocean as we start flying hundreds or thousands of times per year.”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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