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Are quantum computers for real? The answer is fuzzy

Do full-fledged quantum computers already exist, or will it be a decade before they come into being? Will they have to be the size of a football field? A data center cabinet? A microwave oven?

It seems as if the more you talk to computer scientists involved in the quantum computing quest, the less certain the answers become. It’s the flip side of the classic case of Schrödinger’s Cat, which is both dead and alive until you open the box: Quantum computers could be regarded as already alive, or not yet born.

For example, Microsoft is working on a full-stack quantum computer based on an exotic technology that’s expected to come to fruition on the time scale of a decade. Maryland-based IonQ has been making its quantum systems commercially available since 2019, and plans to start building next-gen quantum computers next year at a research and manufacturing facility in Bothell, Wash. Meanwhile, D-Wave Systems, which is headquartered near Vancouver, B.C., has been selling quantum hardware for more than a decade.

So are quantum computers ready for prime time? Researchers say that they’re not, and that the timeline for development is fuzzy. It all depends on how you define quantum computers and the kinds of problems you expect them to handle.

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DARPA boosts Microsoft’s quantum computer concept

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is laying down a bet on Microsoft’s long-running effort to create an industrial-scale quantum computer that takes advantage of the exotic properties of superconducting nanowires.

Microsoft is one of three companies selected to present design concepts as part of a five-year program known as Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing, or US2QC. The DARPA program is just the latest example showing how government support is a driving force for advancing the frontiers of quantum computing — at a time when those frontiers are still cloaked in uncertainty.

“Experts disagree on whether a utility-scale quantum computer based on conventional designs is still decades away or could be achieved much sooner,” Joe Altepeter, US2QC program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a news release. “The goal of US2QC is to reduce the danger of strategic surprise from underexplored quantum computing systems.”

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Spaceflight Inc. goes through a changing of the guard

Space industry veteran Tiphaine Louradour is taking the helm as CEO of Spaceflight Inc., a launch and in-space transportation services provider based in Bellevue, Wash.

She succeeds Curt Blake, who has served as Spaceflight CEO and president since 2013. Blake guided the company through a dynamic period in the rise of the satellite rideshare market — a period that included the company’s acquisition by Japan’s Mitsui & Co. and Yamasa Co. in 2020 and the development of the Sherpa orbital transfer vehicle for satellite deployment in low Earth orbit, or LEO.

Louradour has 25 years of experience as a business leader, with more than 15 years of that experience in the space industry. She was president of International Launch Services starting in 2020 — and previously served in a variety of executive roles at United Launch Alliance, including president of global commercial sales.

In a news release, Louradour said she was excited to join Spaceflight Inc. “My goal in leading this organization is to build on its groundbreaking achievements and expand the launch and on-orbit service offerings beyond LEO,” she said. “I’m very much looking forward to working with the team, as well as its customers and partners, to continue to evolve Spaceflight and especially its Sherpa OTV program into its next phase of growth.”

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Boeing sends off its last 747 — but this isn’t the end

Boeing gave its iconic 747 jumbo jet a grand sendoff today, marking the end of a 55-year era for airplane manufacturing but vowing that the “Queen of the Skies” will continue its reign for decades to come.

Thousands of onlookers — including past and present Boeing employees, customers, suppliers and VIPs — gathered at the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., for a ceremony marking the handover of Boeing’s last 747 to Atlas Air.

“We do not close this book,” Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told the crowd as the jet stood on the tarmac behind him. “It’s just a chapter. We’ll have another chapter of the 747. This airplane will be supported for decades to come, I promise you.”

Atlas Air will operate the 747-8 cargo freighter on behalf of Apex Logistics, a freight forwarder majority-owned by Switzerland’s Kuehne+Nagel Group.

Due to the evolution of the aviation industry, Boeing’s 747 jets have primarily been sold to cargo carriers in recent years. Smaller, more fuel-efficient jets such as the single-aisle 737 and the wide-body 777 and 787 Dreamliner are typically preferred nowadays for passenger service.

But back in 1968, when the first 747 rolled off Boeing’s assembly line, the jumbo design revolutionized airline service.

“We’re talking about one of the most important airplanes in all of history,” Mike Lombardi, senior corporate historian at Boeing, said in a video preview for today’s handover.

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Lauren Sanchez plans to ride her beau’s spaceship

Lauren Sanchez is planning to follow in the footsteps of her billionaire boyfriend, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, by taking a trip aboard the suborbital rocket ship built by Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. And she plans to bring an all-female crew with her on the mission, which she hopes will take place by early 2024.

Sanchez discussed the space mission, her experience as a helicopter pilot and a media producer — and her relationship with Bezos — in a wide-ranging interview published today by WSJ. Magazine.

The relationship between Sanchez and Bezos — and Bezos’ divorce from his wife MacKenzie Scott — fueled a wave of tabloid stories in 2019. Two years later, Bezos took a ride on Blue Origin’s first crewed spaceflight with Sanchez watching from the wings. Sanchez said Bezos will be “cheering us all on from the sidelines” when she takes her turn aboard the New Shepard spaceship.

“As much as he wants to go on this flight, I’m going to have to hold him back,” she told the magazine.

Sanchez said her five crewmates will be “women who are making a difference in the world and who are impactful and have a message to send.” Their identities haven’t yet been revealed.

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Washington state’s quantum industry gets a roadmap

A newly issued report says Washington state provides one of America’s best settings for expanding the frontiers of quantum information science — but those frontiers are so strange and new that it’s hard to get a handle on their potential.

The technology landscape report, titled “Quantum Information Sciences in Washington State,” was prepared by analysts at Moonbeam for the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Advanced Technology Cluster — and issued by the WTIA in conjunction with this week’s Northwest Quantum Nexus Summit at the University of Washington.

Formed in 2019, the Northwest Quantum Nexus’ membership shows why the region is well-suited to play a leading role in the quantum revolution.

NQN’s partners include Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, which have both rolled out cloud-based quantum computing platforms; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is working on a range of quantum applications for national security purposes; and premier research institutions including UW and Washington State University.

“This report validates our thesis that Washington state has the right mix of organizations and capabilities — ranging from startups to legacy enterprises — to ensure Washington becomes a global leader in both quantum adoption and commercialization,” WTIA’s CEO, Michael Schutzler, said in a news release.

But the report also says the state’s tech ventures aren’t taking full advantage of homegrown talent.

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First Mode goes all in on clean energy for heavy industry

Seattle-based First Mode and Anglo American have closed a complicated $1.5 billion transaction that will remake First Mode as a clean-energy company for heavy industry — and shift its headquarters to London.

Anglo American, a global mining company, is now First Mode’s majority shareholder. The change of status was reflected in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which reported a $1.184 billion equity offering sold to Anglo American. That’s in addition to a $200 million cash injection that Anglo American is providing, First Mode spokeswoman Colleen Rubart told me in an email.

Rubart said the balance of the $1.5 billion comes in the form of contributions of intellectual property, contracts, facilities and other assets from both of the parties involved in the deal. The deal closed on Jan. 5, she said.

The business combination, which was announced last year, blends First Mode’s engineering operation with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. First Mode created the hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa last year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

Going forward, First Mode will supply nuGen systems to Anglo American. The project will include the retrofit of about 400 ultra-class haul trucks with First Mode’s powerplant, plus the provision of infrastructure for hydrogen production, refueling and battery recharging.

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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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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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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.”