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GeekWire

$25 million to be paid in drone whistleblower case

Bingen, Wash.-based Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, has agreed to pay $25 million to settle allegations that it used recycled parts rather than new parts in military drones, the Justice Department announced today.

The parts were put into drones that Insitu built for the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Department of the Navy between 2009 and 2017, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

When Insitu was awarded the contracts to supply the drones, under the terms of no-bid contracts, the company said it would use new parts and materials. But according to the allegations, Insitu substituted less expensive recycled, refurbished, reconditions and reconfigured parts.

“Taxpayers deserve to get what they paid for — especially in significant no-bid military contracts,” U.S. Attorney Brian Moran said in a news release. “Cases such as this one should be seen as a warning to defense contractors that false claims have no place in military purchasing.”

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Fiction Science Club

How billionaires can help win ‘The New Climate War’

If billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos really want to maximize their efforts to solve the global climate crisis, they should focus less on gadgetry and more on getting governments to act.

That’s the message from Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann, who delves into the changing circumstances of a decades-old debate in a book titled “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”

At the age of 55, Mann is a grizzled veteran of climate wars: In 1999, he helped lay out the “hockey stick” projection for rising global temperatures, and in 2009 he was swept up in the Climategate controversy over hacked emails.

Michael Mann
Michael E. Mann is a climatologist and geophysicist at Pennsylvania State University. (Penn State Photo)

Mann has chronicled the conflicts over climate science in a series of books published over the course of the past decade. But in “The New Climate War,” he argues that the terms of engagement have shifted.

Amid waves of wildfires and extreme weather, it’s getting harder to deny that Earth’s climate is becoming more challenging. Instead, the focus of the debate is shifting to whether the climate challenge can be met — and if so, how best to meet it.

Gates has argued that investment in technology is the key to averting a catastrophe. “Tech is the only solution,” he said during last October’s GeekWire Summit. The Microsoft co-founder expands upon that perspective in an upcoming book titled “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

Mann takes issue with that argument in “The New Climate War.”

“Where I disagree with Bill is that, no, I don’t think we need a ‘miracle,’ which is what he said [was needed] to solve this problem,” Mann told me during an interview for the Fiction Science podcast. “The miracle is there when we look up in the sky at the sun, when we feel the wind. … The solutions are there. It’s a matter of committing the resources to scaling them up.”

One of Gates’ big energy technology ventures is Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, which is working on small-scale nuclear power plants. But Mann doesn’t think nuclear power will play a significant role going forward — due to high costs as well as broader concerns. “It comes with obvious potential liabilities, whether it’s proliferation issues, weapons issues or environmental threats,” he said.

Mann thinks even less of Gates’ support for solar geoengineering strategies. “That’s going down a very dangerous road,” Mann told me. “When we start interfering with this system [that] we don’t understand perfectly, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.”

As for Bezos, Mann said he’s already had some conversations with the Amazon CEO’s team about climate initiatives such as the $10 billion Earth Fund.

“It’s a start,” Mann said. “Would I like to see him spend less on some of these wackier [ideas like] establishing space colonies, and more on saving the one planet in the universe that we know does support life? Yeah.” (For what it’s worth, Bezos argues that his space vision is aimed at moving energy-intensive, pollution-producing heavy industries off the planet and thereby preserving Earth for residential and light industrial use.)

Although he begs to differ on the details, Mann is nevertheless grateful that Gates and Bezos are on the right side in the new climate war. “I’ll gently criticize these folks where I feel it’s appropriate, but I do welcome these voices at the table, because we need everyone on board,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Denialism and doomism

In his book, Mann argues that the “inactivists” who resist efforts to address the climate challenge have turned to a subtler form of denialism, as well as a phenomenon that Mann calls “doomism.”

Mann argues that the climate-denial crowd has picked up the game plan that’s been followed by the gun lobby, Big Tobacco and the bottling and packaging industry.

New Climate War book cover

Just as “guns don’t kill people,” “smoking doesn’t kill” and “people can stop pollution,” some opponents to policy solutions argue that fixing the climate mess should be left up to individuals. Some even say that you shouldn’t complain about carbon emissions unless you swear off air travel and stop eating meat.

“There are things that we can do in our everyday lives that decrease our environmental footprint — and they make us healthier, they save us money and they make us feel better,” Mann acknowledged. “What we can’t allow is for the forces of inaction, the ‘inactivists,’ to convince us that that’s the entire solution.”

Others insist it’s already too late to avoid the climate catastrophe, and say the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the hellscape to come.

“If we really were doomed, if the science said that, then we’d have to be upfront about that,” Mann said. “But the science says the opposite. The science says there’s still time to avert catastrophic warming.”

Mann said the current political climate (so to speak) is favorable for making progress, thanks in part to a youth movement led by the likes of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

The next phase of the war

“The New Climate War” had to be turned in for publication months before November’s presidential election, but Mann said the results bore out his assumption that Joe Biden would win out. The results in the Senate — a 50-50 tie with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker — couldn’t be any closer.

Because of that narrow mandate, “we probably can’t expect to see something like a Green New Deal,” at least for the next two years or so, Mann said. But he doesn’t rule out moving ahead with the first stages of a carbon-pricing system similar to the tax scheme that Canada currently has in place.

Climate campaigners in Washington state tried twice to set up a carbon-pricing systems, in 2016 and 2018, but both initiatives failed at the polls. Mann noted that fossil-fuel interests weren’t the only opponents.

“Ironically, some of the opposition in recent years to market mechanisms has actually come from the environmental left — because it’s been framed as inconsistent with social justice, that the cost will somehow fall on disadvantaged front-line communities, those with the least resources,” he said. “That definitely does not have to be the case.”

Mann said the key is to tweak market-based pricing systems so that the revenue goes to support the communities that need help, and support the spread of renewable energy technologies.

How would Mann spend the revenue? I put an extra spin on that question by asking him what he’d invest in if he were given a few million dollars to start up a climate-related venture. His answer was true to form.

“I would put it into science communication, focusing on what I see as the remaining obstacles when it comes to scientists informing the public discourse, because we do play a role,” Mann replied.

“We shouldn’t necessarily be dictating what the policies should be. There’s a worthy political debate to be had about that,” he said. “But we need to define the scientific ground rules to find what the objective evidence has to say about the risks that we face, so that we have an honest political debate about solutions.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what does Mann read for a change of pace? His latest literary diversion actually isn’t that much of a diversion: It’s “The Ministry for the Future,” a climate-themed sci-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. Mann says Robinson’s book is “a good companion from the fictional side to the nonfiction of ‘The New Climate War.'”

Robinson was the focus of a previous Fiction Science podcast co-hosted by science-fiction author Dominica Phetteplace and myself. If you’re at all interested in future perils and possibilities relating to the climate crisis, you owe it to yourself to check out the interview.

Billions and Billions

The next book on Mann’s list is “Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.” This is a collection of writings by astronomer Carl Sagan, published in 1997 after his death. The topics addressed range from climate change, the abortion debate and extraterrestrial life to Sagan’s own struggle with a fatal illness.

Mann said Sagan is one of his scientific heroes.

“He really inspired me as a youth, inspired my fascination with science, and continues today to inspire me,” Mann said. “And I’ve had the wonderful benefit of getting to know his daughter, Sasha Sagan, who has entered into this science communication sphere. You can hear some of Carl’s voice in her. It’s a gift.”

That endorsement is worth a double selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available at your local library or used-book store. We’re adding “Billions and Billions” as well as Sasha Sagan’s book, “For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World,” to a list that goes back to Cosmic Log’s founding in 2002.

This is just the latest Sagan family selection for the CLUB Club: Carl Sagan’s “Contact” made the list in July 2003, and Nick Sagan joined his father as a CLUB Club laureate with “Idlewild” in August 2004.

A version of this story was published on GeekWire with the headline “Outspoken Climate Researcher Dishes Out Some Advice for Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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GeekWire

Boeing will pay $2.5B to resolve 737 MAX criminal case

Boeing says it’s entered into a $2.51 billion agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to resolve a criminal charge related to the Federal Aviation Administration’s evaluation of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes.

The deferred-prosecution agreement addresses a single charge of conspiracy to defraud FAA inspectors about the safety of the 737 MAX’s automated flight control system. Investigators say changes to a component known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, were to blame in a pair of catastrophically fatal 737 MAX crashes that occurred in Indonesia in October 2018 and in Ethiopia in March 2019.

Those crashes led the FAA and other regulators to ground hundreds of 737 MAX planes operated by airlines around the world. After more than a year of investigations, software fixes and revisions to pilot training requirements, the FAA cleared the planes to return to service last November.

The agreement calls for Boeing to pay a penalty of $243.6 million, provide $1.77 billion in compensation to the airlines that purchased 737 MAX jets, and establish a $500 million fund to compensate the families of the 346 people who were killed in the two crashes. Boeing also agreed to cooperate with investigators and strengthen its anti-fraud compliance program.

If Boeing complies with the requirements of the agreement, filed today with a federal court in Texas, the criminal charge will be dismissed after three years.

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Cosmic Space

Intel office enlists AI to analyze satellite images

U.S. intelligence officials today launched a program to develop new satellite image analysis tools that use machine learning and other tricks of the artificial intelligence trade.

In a news release, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity announced that contracts for the Space-based Machine Automated Recognition Technique program, or SMART, have been awarded to teams led by BlackSky Geospatial Solutions, which has offices in Seattle as well as Herndon, Va.; Accenture Federal Services, with offices in Arlington, Va.; Kitware, headquartered in New York; and Systems & Technology Research in Woburn, Mass.

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GeekWire

Boeing ends an era at composites research center

Boeing says it’ll be repurposing the Seattle-area facility that has served as the focus for research into the composite materials used in aircraft ranging from the B-2 Stealth bomber to the 787 Dreamliner.

In an emailed statement, Boeing said much of the work being done at the Advanced Developmental Composites Center, situated across the street from Seattle’s Museum of Flight, will be distributed to other Boeing facilities — mostly in the Puget Sound region. Other work, unrelated to Boeing Commercial Airplanes, will continue to be done at the 600,000-square-foot facility.

Boeing cast the move as a cost-saving and efficiency-enhancing measure.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos names rocket recovery ship after his mom

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk named his rocket recovery vessels after science-fiction spaceships, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stayed closer to home for the christening of the ship that his Blue Origin space venture will use for at-sea rocket landings.

In an Instagram post, Bezos said he and his siblings surprised their mom, Jacklyn Bezos, by revealing that the 600-foot recovery ship would be named after her. A video included in the post shows Jacklyn Bezos smashing a bottle of bubbly against the hull, then waving to a cheering crowd.

The landing platform vessel has had several names during its more than two decades of existence. For most of that time, it was known as the Stena Freighter. But when Blue Origin purchased the ship in 2018 and had it brought to Florida for refurbishing, it was clear that it’d be only a matter of time before a new name was painted on its prow.

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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Comebacks in the skies above

Boeing’s rebuilding year drew to a close today with a milestone capping a momentous year in aerospace: the first U.S. passenger flight for a 737 MAX jet since the worldwide fleet was grounded.

American Airlines Flight 718 carried 87 passengers from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, more than 21 months after two catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia brought a halt to 737 MAX flights.

The incidents led to months of investigation, focusing on an automated flight control system that was found to be vulnerable to software glitches. Boeing had to revamp the system and rework pilot training routines in cooperation with airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the return to commercial operations just last month.

Brazil’s Gol Airlines and Aeromexico resumed flying 737 MAX jets earlier this month, but Flight 718 was the first time since the grounding that a MAX carried paying passengers on a regularly scheduled U.S. flight.

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GeekWire

Antenna venture gets a $30M boost from Korea

Hanwha Systems, a smart-technology company headquartered in South Korea, has agreed to make an $30 million investment in Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp. — with an eye toward getting a foothold in the market for antennas capable of linking up with satellite constellations in low Earth orbit.

The equity investment deal follows up on an $85 million funding round led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in August. Gates has backed Kymeta since its launch as a next-generation antenna venture in 2012.

Kymeta is in the midst of the commercial rollout for its latest connectivity offering, a hybrid cellular-satellite broadband service known as Kymeta Connect.

The service relies on an innovative flat-panel antenna called the u8. Metamaterial-based electronics allow Kymeta’s antenna to lock onto satellites without the need for moving parts.

Kymeta Connect currently takes advantage of satellites in geostationary Earth orbit, or GEO. But its system can be upgraded for compatibility with the broadband satellite constellations that are taking shape in low Earth orbit, or LEO — including OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s future Project Kuiper constellation.

That meshes perfectly with the plans being laid by Hanwha, a global conglomerate involved in industries ranging from telecommunications to aerospace and finance. Hanwha Systems Co. focuses on smart technologies in defense electronics and information infrastructure.

“The objective of our investment in Kymeta is to enter the LEO satellite antenna market early on, and diversify our technology portfolio,” Youn Chul Kim, CEO of Hanwha Systems Co., said in a news release. “With the expertise of HSC’s top-notch defense communication and radar technologies, we are joining hands with this promising U.S. satellite antenna company. All these efforts will further strengthen HSC’s aerospace systems capabilities.”

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GeekWire

FAA rules could smooth the way for drone deliveries

After months of feedback and fine-tuning, the Federal Aviation Administration today issued its final versions of safety rules for drones that fly over people and at night — including the drones that Amazon is developing to make package deliveries.

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a news release. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

Draft versions of the rules were issued a year ago, kicking off a review period during which the FAA received about 53,000 comments. The final rules take effect in about two months.

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Cosmic Science

Ancient fast-food joint served up spicy language

A just-unveiled excavation at Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site shows that ancient Roman restaurants had a lot in common with modern-day fast-food eateries — including rude graffiti.

But at Pompeii’s snack bar, naughty comments weren’t just scratched on restroom walls. They were right out in the open, inscribed onto the counter where hot food and drinks were served.

The nearly 2,000-year-old fast-food joint, which was known back then as a thermopolium, got rave reviews this weekend when the Archaeological Park of Pompeii opened it up for pictures. The site was first excavated in 2019, but this year, archaeologists dug down all the way to the floor, unearthing marvelous frescoes in the process.

They also found traces of the tasty wares that were once stored inside the restaurant’s vessels and doled out to customers — as well as the remains of someone who died suddenly when Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in the year 79 covered Pompeii with hot ash and debris.