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New centers will enlist software engineers for science

The University of Washington and three other universities have kicked off an effort to beef up the software engineering resources available to researchers, backed by a $40 million commitment from Schmidt Futures.

The philanthropic organization founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, announced the establishment of the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software this week. The institute’s four inaugural centers will be housed at UW, the University of Cambridge, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

Each of the centers will be awarded $2 million a year for the next five years to bring on software engineers and computational scientists who can help address the increasingly complex, data-centric challenges that face researchers today.

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NASA gives a lift to 57 student experiments

NASA has chosen 57 winning teams — including a team from Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash.— to receive funding to build and fly experiments focusing on subjects ranging from lunar dust mitigation to inkjet printing in zero gravity.

Interlake’s team will focus on a more down-to-Earth scientific question: how pollution levels are correlated with altitude.

The prizes were awarded through NASA’s first-ever TechRise Student Challenge, which aims to give students in grades 6 through 12 an opportunity for real-world experience in designing and executing autonomously operated experiments. The program, administered by Future Engineers, attracted entries from nearly 600 teams representing 5,000 students nationwide.

“At NASA, we educate and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in a news release. “The TechRise Student Challenge is an excellent way for students to get hands-on experience designing, building, and launching experiments on suborbital vehicles. … I can’t wait to see these incredible experiments come to life.”

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Radian raises $27.5 million for orbital space plane

More than five years after its founding, Renton, Wash.-based Radian Aerospace is emerging from stealth mode and reporting a $27.5 million seed funding round to support its plans to build an orbital space plane.

The round was led by Boston-based Fine Structure Ventures, with additional funding from EXOR, The Venture Collective, Helios Capital, SpaceFund, Gaingels, The Private Shares Fund, Explorer 1 Fund, Type One Ventures and other investors.

Radian has previously brought in pre-seed investments, but the newly announced funding should accelerate its progress.

One of the company’s investors and strategic advisers, former Lockheed Martin executive Doug Greenlaw, said Radian was going after the “Holy Grail” of space access with a fully reusable system that would provide for single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launches.

It’ll take much more than $27.5 million to grab the grail: In the late 1990s, NASA spent nearly a billion dollars on Lockheed Martin’s X-33 single-stage-to-orbit concept before the project was canceled in 2001. But Radian’s executives argue that technological advances have now brought the SSTO vision within reach.

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The world’s widest airplane flies for the third time

The mammoth airplane that got its start with backing from the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen took to the air today for its third test flight — marking a new chapter in Stratolaunch’s decade-long effort to create a flying launch pad.

Stratolaunch’s twin-fuselage, six-engine Roc aircraft, named after a mythical bird, is the world’s largest airplane by wingspan. Its 385-foot spread is more than half again as wide as the wings of a Boeing 747.

When Allen founded Stratolaunch back in 2011, his intention was to use Roc to send rockets into orbit from the air. But after Allen’s death in 2018, the company was transferred to new owners — and Roc’s primary purpose pivoted to launching hypersonic test vehicles for military and commercial research.

If the development program proceeds as planned, Stratolaunch could begin testing its air-launched, rocket-powered Talon-A hypersonic vehicle as early as this year.

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Zeva’s flying saucer aces its first free flight

After years of effort, Tacoma, Wash.-based Zeva has executed the first untethered, controlled flight test of its full-scale flying machine — a contraption that looks like a flying saucer.

The demonstration was conducted Jan. 9 in a pasture in rural Pierce County, not far from Zeva’s HQ. During four separate sorties, the Zero aircraft racked up more than four minutes of controlled hovering, simulated taxiing maneuvers at slow speeds, and limited vertical-climb maneuvers.

Zeva’s flying saucer is an electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft, or eVTOL, that’s powered by four pairs of rotors. It’s designed to lift off vertically with a single pilot, then transition to a horizontal orientation to fly at speeds of up to 160 mph with a range of up to 50 miles.

“This is a huge inflection point for Zeva as we join an exclusive set of proven flying eVTOL platforms, and a testament to the relentless hard work and ingenuity of our entire team over the past two and a half years,” Stephen Tibbitts, Zeva’s CEO and chairman, said today in a news release.

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IPO brings in $287.5M to spend on space ventures

A blank-check company that has former Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson as its CEO has completed a $287.5 million initial public offering, furthering its plans to link up with ventures focusing on space, cybersecurity and energy innovation.

C5 Acquisition Corp. closed the IPO with the sale of 28.75 million units at $10 per unit, which was 3.75 million units above the original allotment for sale. Those units are now listed as CXAC.U on the New York Stock Exchange, and common stock is expected to be listed as CXAC.

Blank-check companies — formally known as special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs — use their capital to pursue mergers or other types of business combinations with ventures in targeted industry segments.

The strategy typically accelerates the process of going public, and it’s been used with a growing number of space ventures, including Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, BlackSky and Astra. Seattle-area telecom pioneer Craig McCaw played a key role in the SPAC deal involving Astra, which set that company’s value at $2.1 billion.

In a news release, C5 Acquisition Corp. said it would look for deals related to national security concerns.

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Mangata raises $33M for hybrid satellite constellation

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Mangata Networks, a Phoenix-based startup with links to the Seattle area, has closed a $33 million investment round for an innovative kind of satellite constellation for connectivity and edge computing.

The company received its initial seed financing in 2020 from Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Science Fund, which was backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and IV’s co-founder, Nathan Myhrvold. Since then, that investment fund has morphed into a Bay Area venture capital fund known as MetaVC Partners or Meta Venture Partners.

The idea behind Mangata Networks is to create an Earth-orbiting constellation with some satellites in highly elliptical orbit, or HEO, plus others in medium Earth orbit, or MEO. Those satellites would optimize connectivity with an Earth-based system of MangataEdge micro data centers, extending the power of cloud computing to edge networks that would be close to network users.

The newly announced Series A round was led by Playground Global, which previously led Relativity Space’s $35 million Series B round in 2018. Other investors include Temasek, KTSat, Scottish Enterprise and Promus Ventures.

“We are out to change the world, and that requires visionary investors and partners,” Mangata CEO Brian Holz said today in a news release. “These investors, whose intercontinental representation reflects our own global mission, are championing a new evolution in human connectivity.”

Mangata aims to start deploying ground-based community networks as early as 2023, even before its first satellites are launched. That will give the company a chance to test connectivity for 5G, IoT and Wi-Fi networks at the 5G Open Innovation Lab in Bellevue as well as at other trial sites in South Korea and Scotland. (NASA, Intel and T-Mobile created the 5G Open Innovation Lab in 2020.)

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Electric aviation executive leaves MagniX and Eviation

Roei Ganzarski, the former Boeing manager who went on to give a boost to all-electric aviation, is leaving his executive posts at Everett, Wash.-based MagniX and at Eviation Aircraft, an electric-airplane manufacturer with offices in Arlington, Wash.

Ganzarski was the CEO of MagniX, which focuses on building electric propulsion systems for aircraft. He was the executive chairman of Eviation, which is getting ready for test flights of its all-electric Alice airplane. Both ventures are owned by the Singapore-based Clermont Group, and Eviation’s Alice aircraft is designed to use MagniX’s propulsion system.

Ganzarski announced his double departure “with a heavy heart” last week, in a LinkedIn post that laid out a list of the companies’ recent achievements — including development deals with B.C.-based Harbour Air and other companies as well as a $74.3 million NASA contract to develop an electric demonstrator aircraft.

“I have no doubt that the future of aviation is electric,” he wrote. “It has to be for the sake of our children and grandchildren. It is no longer a question of if, but only when and who. I leave MagniX and Eviation positioned to continue their leadership in this field.”

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Astronomers rejoice after Webb Telescope unfolds mirror

Two weeks after its Christmas launch, the James Webb Space Telescope finished unwrapping itself today, delighting astronomers in the process.

The deployment of JWST’s 18-segment, 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror marked the end of the riskiest portion of the $10 billion telescope’s mission.

It’s still more than 300,000 miles from its destination, a gravitational balance point known as L2 that’s a million miles from Earth. It still has to fine-tune the orientation of the mirror’s gold-and-beryllium segments, and cool its instruments down to a temperature just a few degrees above absolute zero. But mission controllers at the Space Telescope Science Institute were able to tick off nearly 300 potential points of failure without a hitch.

“We have a fully deployed JWST observatory,” Northrop Grumman’s Paul Reynolds, who led the mission’s deployment operations team, declared during a widely watched webcast.

JWST is designed to be 100 times more sensitive than the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, which is near the end of its longer-than-expected life. Once JWST begins science operations, as early as May, it should bring new revelations about mysteries ranging from the habitability of alien planets, to the nature of black holes and quasars, to the origins of the universe.

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Mr. Spock beams down for vaccine-boosting campaign

It’s been almost seven years since Leonard Nimoy, the actor who created the role of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek,” passed away due to respiratory disease — but his character may be coming soon to a billboard near you, as part of a widening campaign to encourage COVID-19 vaccination.

The first round of the campaign, organized by Nimoy’s family and L.A. Care Health Plan with the blessing of ViacomCBS, has been in the works in Los Angeles since last May.

One billboard design features Nimoy in his Mr. Spock role, giving the split-fingered Vulcan salute with the headline “Save Humanity: Get Vaccinated! It’s the Logical Thing to Do.” The other design shows mask-wearing humans in a Star Trek glow and takes full advantage of Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” catchline.

“The phrase ‘Live Long and Prosper’ spreads a message that my dad strongly believed in — not only for a long and healthy life, but it also represents peace, tolerance, diversity and unity,” Julie Nimoy, the actor’s daughter, said in a news release. “This project really is a continuation of his mission on lung health.”

Julie Nimoy’s husband, David Knight, told me in an email that the “L.A. campaign is only the first stop.”

“New billboards in N.Y., Boston, Chicago, D.C., Seattle and Miami are already being discussed,” Knight wrote. “In addition, we’re currently speaking with the World Health Organization about additional billboards specifically on vaccine equity in major cities across the world.”