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NASA and DARPA team up on nuclear rocket program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken on NASA as a partner for a project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear-powered rocket that could someday send astronauts to Mars.

DARPA had already been working with commercial partners — including Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, or USNC-Tech — on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program, also known as DRACO. USNC-Tech supported Blue Origin plus another team led by Lockheed Martin during an initial round of DRACO design work.

Now DARPA and NASA will be working together on the next two rounds of the DRACO program, which call for a commercial contractor to design and then build a rocket capable of carrying a General Atomics fission reactor safely into space for testing. The current plan envisions an in-space demonstration in fiscal year 2027.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in a news release.

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GeekWire

Amazon and Boeing join Northwest’s quantum team

It’s been almost four years since Pacific Northwest leaders in the field of quantum computing gathered in Seattle for the first Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit, and since then, the scientific buzz over quantum has only gotten buzzier. So what’s next for the Nexus? A star-studded second summit.

Amazon Web Services and Boeing are joining this week’s gathering at the University of Washington, and nearly 300 academic, business and government representatives have signed up to attend. Some of the companies showing up at the second summit — such as the Seattle startup Moonbeam Exchange — didn’t even exist when the first summit took place in March 2019.

Over the past four years, UW has received about $45 million in federal funding to support research into quantum information science. Quantum computing has gotten fresh boosts from Congress and the Biden administration. The Pacific Northwest’s two cloud computing powerhouses, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, have both rolled out hybrid quantum platforms. And just last week, Maryland-based IonQ announced that it’s setting up a research and manufacturing facility for quantum computers in Bothell, a Seattle suburb.

Microsoft, UW and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory got the ball rolling for the Northwest Quantum Nexus in 2019. IonQ, Washington State University and the University of Oregon’s Center for Optical, Molecular and Quantum Science joined the team a couple of years later. Now the addition of Amazon and Boeing brings two of the region’s tech giants into the fold.

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GeekWire

Hydrogen-powered airplane revs up for flight tests

Is hydrogen the green aviation fuel of the future? An industry team led by California-based Universal Hydrogen is testing out that proposition amid the scrublands of central Washington state.

Universal Hydrogen is readying its converted De Havilland Dash 8-300 turboprop plane for initial flight tests later this year at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash., with an assist from Washington state partners including Seattle-based AeroTEC and Everett-based MagniX.

Last week, Universal Hydrogen announced that it spun up the propeller on the plane’s MagniX-built electric motor powered completely by hydrogen fuel for the first time. This week, “Lightning McClean” is set to start ground testing in earnest.

“We’ll run the powertrain on the ground with the aircraft static … up to maximum power,” Mark Cousin, Universal Hydrogen’s chief technology officer, told me. “Once we’re happy with the behavior of the system, we will then move into taxi testing and the buildup to flight.”

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GeekWire

IonQ will open quantum computer factory in Seattle area

Maryland-based IonQ says it’s opening a 65,000-square-foot research and manufacturing facility in Bothell, Wash., to build quantum computers. The opening is part of IonQ’s broader plan to invest $1 billion in the Pacific Northwest over the next 10 years, the company says.

The Bothell facility will be the first known dedicated quantum computer manufacturing facility in the United States, according to IonQ. Peter Chapman, the former Amazon executive who serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said today in a news release that the Seattle area was “the best option for our new facility.”

“Advanced technologies like quantum computing are key to solving the world’s most pressing challenges such as climate change, energy and transportation,” Chapman said. “The Seattle region has been a hub of tech innovation and manufacturing for decades, and has the skilled workforce we need to design, build and manufacture our quantum computers.”

The building on Bothell’s Monte Villa Parkway, which once housed offices for AT&T Wireless, will host the company’s second quantum data center and serve as the primary production engineering location for North America. IonQ says it plans to bring thousands of jobs to the Pacific Northwest region in the years ahead.

Like artificial intelligence, quantum information science is an alluring frontier for the computer industry.

In contrast to the one-or-zero processing method that’s at the core of classical computing, quantum computing takes advantage of the weirdness of quantum physics, where a quantum bit (or “qubit”) can represent multiple values until the results are read out. Quantum processing is well-suited for solving problems that involve optimizing systems (for example, untangling Seattle traffic) or sifting through large data sets (for example, unraveling the structure of complex molecules).

IonQ was founded in 2015 as a spin-out from the University of Maryland — and uses a trapped-ion approach to quantum computing, as opposed to the superconducting-circuit approach favored by, say, IBM and Google. In addition to providing direct API access to its quantum systems, IonQ supports cloud-based quantum services offered through Amazon Braket, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

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GeekWire

Boeing wins $425M from NASA for fuel-efficient plane

NASA says it’ll give Boeing $425 million over the next seven years for the development and flight testing of a new breed of fuel-efficient airplane with ultra-thin wings.

The innovative airplane design could produce fuel savings of up to 30%, and blaze the trail for the aviation industry’s effort to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “If we are successful, we may see these technologies in planes that the public takes to the skies in the 2030s,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release.

Boeing’s Transonic Truss-Based Wing concept, or TTBW, involves building an aircraft with extra-long, extra-thin wings that spread over the top of the fuselage. Extra stabilization would be provided by diagonal struts attached beneath the fuselage.

One configuration calls for foldable wings that are 170 feet wide — which is 27 feet shorter than the wingspan of a 787 Dreamliner but 53 feet wider than the wingspan of a 737 MAX 8.

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GeekWire

Mexican airline signs up for 30 Eviation electric planes

Arlington, Wash.-based Eviation Aircraft added to its multibillion-dollar order book with a letter of intent from Mexico-based Aerus to purchase 30 of its all-electric Alice airplanes. Aerus is scheduled to start regional service later this year, with Monterrey as its regional hub, but it will have to wait several years for Eviation’s nine-passenger commuter planes to be delivered.

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GeekWire

Fireball lights up Seattle’s skies as webcams watch

It’s cool to see a fireball — but even cooler to capture it on video. At least that’s the way Seattle engineer/photographer Corey Clarke sees it.

Clarke’s webcam happened to be pointing in the right direction to record the fireball’s flash through wispy clouds at around 11 p.m. PT Monday night. His day job at ServiceNow focuses on hardware reliability, but he’s also a photographer who specializes in wildlife shots, landscapes and views of the night sky.

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GeekWire

Stratolaunch’s mammoth plane begins its big year

Stratolaunch, the air-launch company founded by the late Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, today conducted its second captive-carry test flight with the world’s largest airplane and a piggyback payload. The six-hour outing from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port marked further progress toward the first launch of the Talon-A hypersonic flight vehicle.

Today’s flight gave Stratolaunch’s team a chance to rehearse procedures for releasing a separation test vehicle from the twin-fuselage Roc aircraft in midflight — and eventually launching rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles for government and commercial applications. “We are excited for what’s ahead this year as we bring out hypersonic flight test service online for our customers and the nation,” Stratolaunch CEO Zachary Krevor said in a news release.

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Universe Today

UFO update says Pentagon’s case count is rising rapidly

new report to Congress says the Pentagon’s task force on UFOs — now known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs — has processed more reports in the past couple of years than it did in the previous 17 years. But that doesn’t mean we’re in the midst an alien invasion.

The unclassified report was issued this week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, in collaboration with the Department of Defense’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO. The office was created by congressional mandate, and this week’s report serves as an update to a preliminary assessment of the Pentagon’s UAP reports issued in 2021.

That assessment said there were 144 reports relating to aerial anomalies sighted by military service members between 2004 and 2021. “There have been 247 new reports and another 119 that were either since discovered or reported after the preliminary assessment’s time period,” the newly released report says. That brings the total to 510 UAP reports as of last Aug. 30.

The authors of the report say the increase in the reporting rate “is partially due to a better understanding of the possible threats that UAP may represent, either as safety of flight hazards or as potential adversary collection platforms, and partially due to reduced stigma surrounding UAP reporting.”

Either way, U.S. intelligence and military officials say they see that as a good thing. “This increased reporting allows more opportunities to apply rigorous analysis and resolve events,” the report says.

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Universe Today

Webb pioneer gives advice to future telescope builders

After a quarter-century of development, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a smashing success. But senior project scientist John Mather, a Nobel-winning physicist who’s played a key role in the $10 billion project since the beginning, still sees some room for improvement.

Mather looked back at what went right during JWST’s creation, as well as what could be done better the next time around, during a lecture delivered today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

The seeds for JWST were planted way back in 1989, a year before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Mather said the scientists who were planning for what was initially known as the Next Generation Space Telescope took a lesson from the problems that plagued Hubble — problems that required an on-orbit vision correction.

“No. 1 lesson from Hubble program was, figure out how you’re going to do this before you do it, and make sure the technologies are mature,” he said.

The JWST team designed a segmented mirror that could be folded up for launch, and then unfolded in space to create a 21-foot-wide reflective surface. An even wider sunshade blocked out the sun’s glare as the telescope made its observations from a vantage point a million miles from Earth.

Mather cycled through the new space telescope’s greatest hits — including a deep-field view with a gravitational-lensing galaxy cluster that brought even more distant objects into focus. “There is actually a single star which is magnified enough that you can recognize it in the image,” Mather said. “When we talked about this in the beginning, I thought the odds of this happening are too small. … I am completely stunned with this result.”