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World’s biggest airplane flies again for Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch, the aerospace company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, put the world’s biggest airplane through its second flight test today, two years after the first flight.

“We are airborne!” Stratolaunch reported in a tweet.

Today’s takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time the plane, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, got off the ground since Stratolaunch’s acquisition by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc rose as high as 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes — which is close to an hour longer than the first flight on April 13, 2019. During that earlier flight, the airplane reached a maximum speed of 189 mph and maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Zachary Krevor, Stratolaunch’s chief operating officer, said today’s flight accomplished its test objectives by checking the performance of improved instrumentation, a more robust flight control system and an environmental control system that allowed the pilots to work in a pressurized cockpit. Krevor said the crew included chief pilot Evan Thomas, pilot Mark Giddings and flight engineer Jake Riley.

The flight’s spiciest moment came at touchdown, when one of the plane’s landing gears settled the runway while the other was still in the air. “We did touch down initially on one gear, but that’s exactly the technique we prefer to use during a crosswind landing,” Krevor told GeekWire during a post-landing teleconference. “Though we stayed within our crosswind limits, we did have a little bit of a crosswind, and the aircrew did an excellent job of bringing the aircraft down.”

Since Roc’s first flight in 2019, the business model for the 10-year-old venture has shifted: In its early years, Stratolaunch focused on using Roc as a flying launch pad for sending rockets and their payloads to orbit. The concept capitalizes on the air launch system pioneered by SpaceShipOne, which won financial backing from Allen and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004,

The new owners still expect to use Roc for air launch, but the current focus is on using the plane as a testbed for Stratolaunch’s hypersonic flight vehicles. Once the plane is cleared for regular operations, perhaps next year, Stratolaunch could begin launching its Talon-A prototype hypersonic plane.

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GeekWire

Bill Gates gives a fresh boost to clean energy

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting his money as well as his mouth behind the push for new energy technologies.

First, about the money: Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures is doubling down on its investment in ZeroAvia, a startup that’s working on a hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrain for aircraft capable of flying more than 50 passengers.

Back in December, Breakthrough Energy Ventures led a Series A funding round that raised $21.4 million for the U.S.-British company, with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund joining in the round. This week, ZeroAvia said Gates’ energy innovation fund is participating in a follow-up investment round amounting to another $24.3 million.

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GeekWire

Boeing ex-CEO’s new tech venture raises $240M

New Vista Acquisition Corp., the blank-check company founded by former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to prime the pump for a future high-tech acquisition, went on the market today with an initial public offering valued at $240 million. That’s significantly higher than the originally planned $200 million offering.

The IPO comes a little more than a year after Boeing fired Muilenburg amid controversy over his handling of the company’s 737 MAX crisis. Boeing is still dealing with the financial and reputational aftermath of two catastrophic crashes in late 2018 and early 2019, the worldwide grounding of the 737 MAX fleet that resulted, and deep questions that were raised during investigations into Boeing’s practices.

Boeing is now well into the 737 MAX fleet’s return to service under Dave Calhoun, Muilenburg’s successor as Boeing CEO.

During his time at Boeing, Muilenburg was a strong advocate for technologies focusing on advanced air mobility and autonomous flight — the sorts of technologies that could spawn new types of electric-powered, vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, or eVTOLs. Such craft are also known as air taxis, personal air vehicles or flying cars. Many of Boeing’s efforts in that market have been put on hold due to the financial impacts of the 737 MAX crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

New Vista, which has Muilenburg as chairman and CEO, says it will focus on businesses operating in the space, defense and communications industries, as well as advanced air mobility and logistics. The company is widely expected to target an eVTOL venture for a merger or acquisition.

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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

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

737 MAX cleared for flight — after software upgrades

Two years after the catastrophic crash of a Boeing 737 MAX jet in Indonesia touched off an aviation crisis, the Federal Aviation Administration today laid out the path for hundreds of 737s to return to flight.

But that can’t happen immediately: It’ll take months for the FAA to check the implementation of changes in pilot training procedures, and verify all the fixes that will be made. All 737 MAX planes have been grounded worldwide in the aftermath of a second crash that occurred in Ethiopia in March 2019.

“This is not the end of this safety journey,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told CNBC. “There’s a lot of work that the airlines and the FAA and Boeing will have to do in the coming weeks and months.”

Stan Deal, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a news release that today’s FAA directive was an “important milestone” but agreed that there’s a lot of work to be done. “We will continue to work with regulators around the world and our customers to return the airplane back into service worldwide,” Deal said.

The key fixes involve software rather than hardware — and that part of the job is more like installing a Windows update than installing an actuator.

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Cosmic Space

Space Notes: From satellite deals to a new fellowship

— Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s signed an agreement with HawkEye 360 to support multiple launches of the Virginia-based company’s radio-frequency mapping satellites.

Spaceflight will provide mission management services for HawkEye 360’s Cluster 4, 5 and 6 launches. Each cluster consists of three 65-pound satellites that fly in formation to gather a wide variety of geolocation tracking data. SpaceX sent HawkEye 360’s first cluster into orbit in 2018 as part of a dedicated-rideshare mission organized by Spaceflight. Cluster 2 is scheduled for launch as soon as December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that’s equipped with Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is one of several launch vehicles in Spaceflight’s portfolio for rideshare satellite missions. Other rocket offerings include Northrop Grumman’s Antares, Rocket Lab’s Electron, Arianespace’s Vega, Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha and India’s PSLV. Spaceflight has launched more than 300 satellites across 32 rideshare missions to date.

— Seattle-based RBC Signals has been engaged by California-based Swarm Technologies to host ground-based antennas for Swarm’s satellite IoT communications constellation.

The antennas will support Swarm’s next wave of satellites, part of a 150-unit constellation that’s due to go into full operation by the end of 2021. The first antenna included in the agreement has been placed on Alaska’s North Slope and is supporting the latest group of satellites to be deployed. Those 12 satellites, each about the size of a slice of bread, were sent into orbit on Sept. 2 by an Arianespace Vega rocket.

Plans call for additional Swarm antennas to be activated and hosted by RBC Signals in strategic locations around the world. RBC Signals, founded in 2015, takes advantage of company-owned as well as partner-owned antennas to provide communication services to government and commercial satellite operators.

— Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited says it has completed a critical design review for its MakerSat payload, which is due to fly aboard a NASA mission aimed at testing in-space servicing and manufacturing technologies in the mid-2020s.

MakerSat will be part of Maxar Technologies’ Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), one of the payloads attached to NASA’s OSAM-1 spacecraft. (OSAM stands for On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing). SPIDER is designed to assemble a communications antenna in orbit, while MakerSat will manufacture a 32-foot-long, carbon-fiber construction beam.

The project will test techniques for use on future space missions. “MakerSat will demonstrate the manufacturing of the 2-by-4’s that can be used to construct large telescopes for studying exoplanets and to assemble future space stations,” Tethers Unlimited’s founder and president, Rob Hoyt, said in a news release.

— The application window has opened for the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, a new program that offers paid internships in the aerospace industry for Black and African-American college students.

The fellowship program is modeled after the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, which offers summer internships to undergraduate as well as graduate students who are passionate about commercial spaceflight; and the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which focuses on women and gender-minority students in aerospace. (GeekWire participated in the first year of the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program.)

Seattle-area companies participating in the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship Program include Blue Origin, Boeing and Stratolaunch. The program is named after Patti Grace Smith, who was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, became the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial spaceflight, and passed away in 2016 at the age of 68.

Check out the fellowship’s website for eligibility requirements and application procedures. The application deadline for internships in 2021 is Nov. 15.

This report was first published on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Aviation vision fueled by hydrogen and electricity

Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX says it’s partnering with a Los Angeles startup called Universal Hydrogen to retrofit 40-passenger regional aircraft with carbon-free, hydrogen-fueled electric powertrains.

The partnership opens up a new frontier for MagniX, which is already involved in flight tests for all-electric versions of smaller airplanes such as the de Havilland Beaver (for Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air) and the Cessna Grand Caravan.

This time, MagniX and Universal Hydrogen aim to transform the de Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300, better known as the Dash 8. The Dash 8 is a time-honored twin turboprop traditionally used for commercial regional air service. If the project succeeds, the lessons learned can be applied for the development of retrofit conversion kits for the wider ATR 42 family of aircraft.

Universal Hydrogen’s plan for the Dash 8 calls for MagniX to provide an electric propulsion system in the 2-megawatt class for each wing, powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Get the full story 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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GeekWire

Boeing CEO will ‘turn up the volume’ to fight racism

David Calhoun
Boeing CEO David Calhoun gives a talk at Virginia Tech, his alma mater, in 2018. (Virginia Tech Photo)

In a letter sent to employees today, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun pledged to “turn up the volume on dialogue” about diversity and inclusion — and said the company would boost its support for marginalized communities.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.