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Cosmic Tech

Boom does a virtual rollout for its supersonic plane

A year ago, you might have expected the rollout of Boom Supersonic’s XB-1 prototype jet to be a hands-on affair, attended by throngs of employees and enthusiasts.

Then COVID-19 hit.

As a result, today’s big reveal played out mostly as a hands-off affair, with the XB-1 rolling out under a sullen sky while the music swelled at the climax of a 45-minute video. It wasn’t computer-generated graphics, but the rollout had that feel to it.

Despite the social distancing, today’s event proved that Boom Supersonic’s vision is more than CGI — thanks to the efforts of nearly 150 employees at the company’s facilities in Centennial, Colo., and more than $140 million in funding from venture capital firms and high-profile investors such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

The coronavirus pandemic may have put a crimp in Boom’s development timeline, but the current plan calls for the single-seat XB-1 to start flight testing at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port next year, with veteran test pilots Bill “Doc” Shoemaker and Chris “Duff” Guarente taking turns at the controls.

If that plan holds, XB-1 will be the first commercial-purpose supersonic jet to take to the skies since the last Concorde flew in 2003.

The XB-1’s fuselage is longer than that of a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (71 vs. 60 feet) but its delta wings aren’t nearly as wide (21 vs. 44 feet). Carbon-composite construction and 3-D printing cut down on weight and complexity. Shoemaker said the plane has cameras mounted on its nose gear that’ll give pilots the visibility they need without having to employ a Concorde-style swiveling nose.

It’s powered by three tried-and-true GE J85-15 engines, but to cut down its carbon footprint, it’ll use fuel produced from captured CO2. “We’re going to get to zero from day one,” Boom CEO Blake Scholl promised during today’s festivities.

The XB-1 is a one-of-a-kind prototype, designed to fly at Mach 1.3 but not designed for commercial service. Instead, it’ll serve as a testbed for Boom’s bigger Overture airplane: Currently still on the drawing boards, the nearly 200-foot-long Overture is meant to fly 65 to 88 passengers at speeds of up to Mach 2.2.

Scholl said going supersonic would cut Seattle-to-Tokyo air travel time from 10 hours to four and a half hours. That’s why Japan Air Lines has already signed up to buy some of the Overture jets when they’re ready.

The current timetable calls for Boom to start building Overture in 2022, with rollout scheduled for 2025 and the start of service set for 2027. Boom’s past development schedules have slipped, however, and Overture’s timeline is likely to face delays as well.

Boom is one of several companies receiving funding from the U.S. Air Force to study options for the development of a supersonic Air Force One for presidential and VIP use. Georgia-based Hermeus has received $1.5 million for supersonic studies, and California-based Exosonic has a $1 million contract. Boom’s contract seems likely to be in the same ballpark.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has a $247.5 million contract from NASA to build a supersonic aircraft that would demonstrate low-boom technologies. Test flights could begin as early as next year.

Boeing has its own vision for commercial supersonic flight, and has invested in Aerion Supersonic to make it so. Spike Aerospace and Virgin Galactic also plan to field supersonic planes.

Will Boom be the first to make a splash in the supersonic market? Scholl certainly has big ambitions. “We’re sizing the initial factory to do between five and 10 aircraft a month, and I think it’s very likely that we’ll need to build a second factory and double that up,” he said.

Just this week, Boeing said the prospects for commercial airplane sales look dimmer than they did a year ago, largely due to the pandemic. But Scholl sounds much more bullish — or should we say, boomish.

“When you look at how many people are flying on routes that we can fly with today’s regulations, with a big speedup, we need to build a lot of Overtures,” he said. “In fact, we think we’re going to make more Overtures than Boeing has made 787s.

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Cosmic Tech

IonQ goes big in quantum computing’s numbers game

Bragging rights in quantum computing, like quantum mechanics itself, can get fuzzy. Take today’s claim from IonQ that it’s creating “the world’s most powerful quantum computer.”

To back up that claim, IonQ is turning to a metric known as quantum volume. That’s a multidimensional yardstick that combines stats ranging from the number of quantum bits (a.k.a. qubits) in a computer to the system’s error rate and cross-qubit connectivity.

In today’s news release, IonQ says its next-generation system will feature 32 “perfect” qubits with low gate errors, penciling out to a quantum volume value in excess of 4 million.

Taken at face value, that would take some of the steam out of this week’s announcement by Honeywell that its quantum computing system achieved a quantum volume of 128. Which took some of the steam out of IBM’s announcement in August that it reached a quantum volume of 64. And IBM is the company that came up with the metric.

The numbers game highlights the fact that the competition in quantum computing is just getting started, more than two decades after computer scientists laid out the theoretical foundations for the field.

Under the best of circumstances, quantum computing is hard to wrap your brain around. Rather than dealing with the cold, hard ones and zeroes of classical computing, the quantum paradigm relies on qubits that can represent multiple values at the same time.

The approach is particularly well-suited for solving problems ranging from breaking (or protecting) cryptographic codes, to formulating the molecular structures for new materials and medicines, to optimizing complex systems such as traffic patterns and financial markets.

Players in the quantum computing game include heavy-hitters such as IBM, Google and Honeywell — as well as startups such as Maryland-based IonQ, California-based Rigetti and B.C.-based D-Wave Systems.

Different approaches are being used. IBM, Google and Rigetti are focusing on superconducting logic gates; IonQ uses trapped-ion technology; and D-Wave relies on quantum annealing.

The important thing to keep in mind is that different technologies from different providers (including IonQ, Rigetti and D-Wave) are being offered on the quantum cloud platforms offered by Amazon and Microsoft. IBM and Google, meanwhile, provide their quantum tools as options on their own cloud computing platforms.

Developers who want to make use of quantum data processing aren’t likely to go out and buy a dedicated quantum computer. They’re more likely to choose from the cloud platforms’ offerings — just as a traveler who wants to rent a snazzy car from Hertz or from Avis can go with a Corvette or a Mustang.

That’s where metrics make the difference. If you can show potential customers that your quantum machine has more horsepower, you’re likely to do better in an increasingly competitive market.

Last year, IBM’s 53-qubit computer was touted as the world’s most powerful quantum processor, while Google claimed “quantum supremacy” with its own 54-qubit machine. And the ante is repeatedly being upped: Last month, IBM said it would pass the 1,000-qubit mark in 2023 and aim for a million-qubit computer over the longer term.

In contrast, IonQ emphasizes qubit quality over quantity. “We’re not going to throw a million qubits on the table unless we can do millions of operations,” co-founder and chief scientist Chris Monroe told me last December.

Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said quantum computing should prove its worth well before the million-qubit mark.

“In a single generation of hardware, we went from 11 to 32 qubits, and more importantly, improved the fidelity required to use all 32 qubits,” Peter Chapman, the former Amazon exec who now serves as IonQ’s CEO and president, said in today’s news release.

“Depending on the application, customers will need somewhere between 80 and 150 very high-fidelity qubits and logic gates to see quantum advantage,” Chapman said. “Our goal is to double or more the number of qubits each year.”

IonQ’s 32-qubit hardware will be rolled out initially as a private beta, and then will be made commercially available via Amazon Braket and Microsoft Azure Quantum.

As we await the next raise in the numbers game, it might be a good idea to set up a trusted authority to take charge of the standards and benchmarking process for quantum computing — similar to how the TOP500 has the final word on which supercomputers lead the pack.

Such an authority could definitively determine who has the world’s most powerful quantum computer. Or would that violate the weird rules of quantum indeterminacy?

Update for 3:35 p.m. PT Oct. 5: We’ve added more precise language and links to describe the distinctions between different types of quantum computing technology.

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Cosmic Tech

Kymeta’s next-gen antennas win FCC’s approval

Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp., the mobile connectivity venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, says it has won the Federal Communications Commission’s blanket authorization for the operation of its next-generation u8 antenna terminal.

  • Kymeta says the authorization marks a major milestone for the u8 terminal, which is currently in beta testing with commercial release sct for later this year. The company has also won type approvals for use of the terminal from several leading satellite service operators, including Intelsat, Echostar, Hellasat, KTSat and Telesat.
  • Founded in 2012 as a spin-out from Intellectual Ventures, Kymeta’s flat-panel antennas can be electronically steered with no moving parts, thanks to exotic metamaterials technology. The antennas are the key to Kymeta Connect, a hybrid cellular-satellite data service that will be sold on a turnkey subscription basis starting at $999 for a gigabyte of data per month.
  • Just last month, Kymeta announced the acquisition of Lepton Global Solutions to enhance the company’s satellite service offerings for military and government markets. The privately held company also reported an $85 million funding round led by Gates.

This report was first published on GeekWire.

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Cosmic Tech

Hermeus wins $1.5M from Air Force for hypersonic flight

A hypersonic Air Force One? It could happen.

Atlanta-based Hermeus Corp. is partnering with the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon unit in charge of presidential aircraft to develop technologies for hypersonic travel — that is, flight at more than five times the speed of sound.

Hermeus has won a $1.5 million award for the effort under the terms of a contract with AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation program. The award follows Hermeus’ successful test of a Mach 5 engine prototype in February.

Hermeus and the Air Force will conduct a rapid assessment of the company’s hypersonic concept for the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate’s fleet, which includes the Air Force One airplanes.

The next planes in the Air Force One fleet will be Boeing 747 jets, which are currently being modified for presidential use. Those planes are due for delivery in 2024. Presumably, hypersonic technology will be considered for the next next Air Force One.

“Leaps in capability are vital as we work to complicate the calculus of our adversaries,” Brig. Gen. Ryan Britton, program executive officier for the airlift directorate, explained in a news release.

“By leveraging commercial investment to drive new technologies into the Air Force, we are able to maximize our payback on Department of Defense investments,” Britton said. “The Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate is proud to support Hermeus in making this game-changing capability a reality as we look to recapitalize the fleet in the future.”

Hermeus says it brought its Mach 5 concept from design to test in just nine months. The test campaign served to reduce risk for Hermeus’ turbine-based combined cycle engine architecture, and demonstrated the team’s ability to execute projects efficiently.

Engine firing

“Using our pre-cooler technology, we’ve taken an off-the-shelf gas turbine engine and operated it at flight speed conditions faster than the famed SR-71,” said Glenn Case, Hermeus’ chief technical officer. “In addition, we’ve pushed the ramjet mode to Mach 4-5 conditions, demonstrating full-range hypersonic air-breathing propulsion capability.”

Hermeus is one of many ventures focusing on hypersonic flight for civilian and military applications. The other players range from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to Stratolaunch and Reaction Engines.

There are a couple of connections between Hermeus and Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture. Before joining Hermeus, Case worked as a propulsion design and engineer at Blue Origin. And one of Hermeus’ advisers is Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin’s former president.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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Cosmic Tech

FCC boosts WiBotic’s wireless charging system

The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for Seattle-based WiBotic’s wireless charging system to provide up to 300 watts of over-the-air power to robots, drones and other battery-powered devices.

WiBotic says that’s a first for the industry.

“FCC approval is not only an accomplishment for our team, but also for our customers and the industry,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters said today in a news release.

“Previously, only low-power cellphone and small electronics chargers or very high-power electric vehicle chargers were approved for widespread use,” Waters said. “WiBotic is now providing a solution that lets the entire automation industry take advantage of the wireless power revolution.”

The FCC’s authorization, issued last month, should boost confidence among WiBotic’s customers that the company’s system meets regulatory requirements. “This will let them deploy larger fleets faster than would otherwise be possible,” the company’s vice president for business development, told Unite.ai’s Antoine Tardif in an interview.

WiBotic’s system lets drones charge themselves up automatically when they touch down on a charging pad. Robots can pull up to a charging station and pull in power via antennas. WiBotic is also working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute on a wireless power system for underwater sensors.

The company’s power management software can work with the hardware to optimize battery use for entire fleets of electric-powered machines, without a human ever having to handle a plug. In a June interview, Waters said the hands-off approach is a particularly strong selling point as companies that rely on automation struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

WiBotic, which was spun out from the University of Washington in 2015, reported raising $5.7 million in a Series A funding round in June, bringing total investment to nearly $9 million. Investors in that round included Junson Capital, SV Tech Ventures, Rolling Bay Ventures, Aves Capital, The W Fund and WRF.

The company is working with an array of customers that include Waypoint RoboticsClearpath Robotics and Aero Corp.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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Cosmic Tech

Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic plane concept

Virgin Galactic has taken the wraps off a concept for an airplane capable of flying three times the speed of sound, to be developed with support from Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

The project would be distinct from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane program, which is closing in on the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Today’s announcement follows through on the company’s heightened focus on high-speed aircraft development, which is backed by a $20 million investment from Boeing HorizonX and supported by a deal with NASA to collaborate on supersonic projects.

Such an initiative seems likely to pit Virgin Galactic against aerospace industry players that have a head start in the race to revive supersonic travel — ranging from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to Boom Supersonic, a startup that Virgin Galactic partnered with years ago.

Virgin Galactic says it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce for the development of the plane’s engine propulsion system, has put the design through a mission concept review in cooperation with NASA representatives, and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to lay out a certification framework for the plane.

George Whitesides, who recently transitioned from CEO to a new position known as chief space officer to work on new projects, said the company has made “great progress so far” on the concept.

“We are excited to complete the mission concept review and unveil this initial design concept of a high-speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience,” Whitesides said in a news release.

The basic parameters of the design include a Mach 3 delta-wing aircraft that would have the capacity to fly nine to 19 people at an altitude above 60,000 feet. Virgin Galactic could provide customized cabin layouts to address customer needs, including business-class or first-class seating. The plane would be designed to use existing airport infrastructure and lead the way in the use of sustainable aviation fuel.

The company provided no timetable for development. Nevertheless, the stock market’s initial reaction to the news was positive — boosting Virgin Galactic’s share price in early trading today.

Commercial supersonic travel faded away in 2003 with the retirement of the British-French Concorde, due to concerns about cost and sonic-boom restrictions. In recent years, NASA and a variety of aerospace ventures have been looking into “quiet-boom” technologies that might make supersonic flight more palatable (and satisfy regulators).

NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a test aircraft known as the X-59 QueSST, or Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. The X-59’s first flight is due in the 2021-2022 time frame.

Meanwhile, Aerion Supersonic, Boom Supersonic and Spike Aerospace are among a new crop of supersonic startups hoping to field planes and win FAA certification in the years ahead.

Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his company would assist Boom with engineering, design, manufacturing, flight testing and operations — and would take a purchase option on the first 10 airframes. Today’s announcement suggests that Virgin Galactic is now moving in a different direction.

For what it’s worth, Boom is due to roll out its prototype XB-1 supersonic jet in October.

Some wondered whether Virgin Galactic will be arriving too late to the supersonic soiree, or whether its plans for a high-speed aircraft were sufficiently realistic.

“Had to recheck the date on the calendar. Nope, not April 1,” Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble tweeted.

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin, meanwhile, tweeted an illustration showing SpaceX’s planned Starship super-rocket and wrote, “Mach 3 won’t cut it. The competition will be doing Mach 25.”

If Virgin Galactic’s supersonic airplane turns out to be vaporware, at least it’s cool-looking vaporware. Check out these renderings (all copyrighted by Virgin Galactic and used with permission):

Update for 2:30 p.m. PT Aug. 3: Virgin Galactic posted a second-quarter loss of $63 million with zero revenue today, sparking an after-hours drop in its share price. But that wasn’t the most significant news for space fans.

The company said it’s planning to conduct two powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket plane in New Mexico over the next few months. If those tests prove successful, Branson would get on board for a high-profile SpaceShipTwo flight in the first quarter of 2021.

Virgin Galactic also said it entered into deposit agreements with 12 customers for orbital spaceflights. In June, the company announced a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop a readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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Cosmic Environment Cosmic Tech

Carbon X Prize could turn CO2 into $20 million

Image: Power plant
The Four Corners power plant in New Mexico is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, based on measurements made by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (Credit: LANL)

Can you turn carbon dioxide emissions into gold? How about biofuel? The Carbon X Prize competition is offering $20 million for the best strategies to make use of CO2.

Past X Prizes have rewarded high-tech achievements in private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient automobiles. There are also X Prizes for moon missions“Star Trek” tricorders and educational software. The competition announced Tuesday is aimed at identifying technologies that convert industrial carbon dioxide emissions into high-value products – for example, clothing or shoes, building materials or industrial chemicals.

Carbon dioxide emissions are considered one of the factors behind global climate change, and the Obama administration is seeking steep cuts in such emissions from power plants. The Carbon X Prize could highlight high-tech solutions to the environmental problem.

“In order to demonstrate the widest possible applicability of potential solutions, the competition will have two tracks: one focused on testing technologies at a coal power plant, and one focused on testing technologies at a natural gas power plant,” Paul Bunje, principal and senior scientist for energy and environment at XPrize, said in Tuesday’s announcement.

Would-be competitors have until next June to sign up. Their proposals will be assessed by a judging panel, and the top 15 teams in each track will move on to demonstrate their technologies in controlled experiments.

In each track, the five top-rated finalists will share a $2.5 million milestone purse, based on the results of the experiments. Then they’ll try out their technologies using actual emissions from power plants. In March 2020, the highest-rated team in each track will be awarded a grand prize of $7.5 million. Check out the Carbon XPrize website for the details.

The competition is sponsored by NRG Energy and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, or COSIA. It follows up on a similar multimillion-dollar carbon conversion contest in Canada known as the CCEMC Grand Challenge.