Air Force challenge gives a lift to ‘flying car’ technologies

The U.S. Air Force’s tech incubator has given the go-ahead for 11 design concepts aimed at pushing the frontier for aircraft that can take off and land vertically — and at least two of the concepts have roots in the Seattle area.

Among the teams selected to advance in AFWERX’s High-Speed VTOL Concept Challenge are Jetoptera, based in Edmonds, Wash.; and VerdeGo Aero, which is based in Florida but has Bainbridge Island’s Erik Lindbergh as co-founder and executive chairman. Lindbergh is the grandson of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.

AFWERX’s challenge focuses on technologies that the military could use in VTOLs — vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft that could include next-generation helicopters and other types of vehicles popularly known as “flying cars.” The challenge is being conducted for the Air Force as well as the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The winning teams were chosen from more than 200 entrants in the challenge. Over the next six months, the 11 teams will receive market research investments aimed at advancing their technologies.


ULA and SpaceX win shares of Space Force launches

The U.S. Space Force designated United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as the winners of a multibillion-dollar competition for national security launches over a five-year period, passing up a proposal from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in the process.

Northrop Grumman and its OmegA rocket also lost out in the Phase II competition for the National Security Space Launch program.

ULA will receive a 60% share of the launch manifest for contracts awarded in the 2020-2024 time frame, with the first missions launching in fiscal 2022, said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

SpaceX will receive the other 40%.

The competition extended through the creation of the U.S. Space Force, whose Space and Missile Systems Center will be in charge of executing the launches in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office.

The five-year Phase II program provides for fixed-price but indefinite-delivery contracts, which means there isn’t a specified total payout. But Roper said it’d be reasonable to estimate that somewhere around 32 to 34 launches would be covered, which would translate to billions of dollars in business.

Three launches were assigned today: ULA is scheduled to launch two missions known as USSF-51 and USSF-106 for the Space Force in 2022, while SpaceX has been assigned USSF-67 in mid-2022.

ULA’s two contracts amount to $337 million, and SpaceX’s contract is worth $316 million. Roper said details about the payloads are classified.

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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.


BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

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Refactr wins USAF contract for software automation

Seattle-based Refactr has won a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research contract that calls for the Air Force to evaluate the use of the company’s platform to automate software management processes.

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Xplore to study navigation for cislunar missions

Xplore moon mission
An artisti’s conception shows Xplore’s Xcraft with the moon in the background. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore has won a $50,000 award from the Air Force to develop an architecture for keeping track of missions between Earth and the moon.

The three-month study is being funded through the Air Force’s AFWERX technology innovation program, a partnership involving the Air Force Research Laboratory and the National Security Innovation Network. The Air Force wants to develop systems for position, navigation and timing, or PNT, that would extend a GPS-like tracking system to cislunar space — that is, the domain of space extending to the moon.

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Air Force and Boeing strike deal to fix tankers

The Air Force says it reached two agreements with Boeing today, aimed at making the final fixes in camera systems for Boeing-bult KC-46A Pegasus tankers and releasing $882 million in payments that were held back due to problems with the tankers.

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Air Force and Blue Origin team up on test site

AFRL altitude facility
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s altitude facility at Edwards Air Force Base conducts research on next-generation rocket components, propellant formulations and subsystems; and high-vacuum research on satellite components. Research testing includes solid rocket motor testing at simulated altitudes up to 120,000 feet. (AFRL Photo)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a new test facility at California’s Edwards Air Force Base for Blue Origin’s BE-7 rocket engine.

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GAO sides with Blue Origin in launch dispute

New Glenn
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. (Blue Origin Illustration)

The Government Accountability Office is agreeing with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture that the Air Force needs to amend its rules for deciding who’ll get future contracts for national security space launches.

Today’s GAO decision comes in response to Blue Origin’s pre-award protest over the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which was filed in August when Blue Origin and three other companies submitted their bids for future procurements.

The launches covered by the process would be executed between 2022 and 2026, and are sure to bring billions of dollars to the companies that are selected.

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X-37B space plane lands after 780 days in orbit

X-37B landing
The Air Force’s X-37B space plane lands at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Air Force Photo)

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane landed today after spending a record-setting 780 days in orbit testing hush-hush technologies for long-duration spaceflight.

Touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 3:51 a.m. ET (12:51 a.m. PT), the Air Force said in a statement. The landing marked the end of the fifth test mission for the uncrewed mini-space shuttle, which experts say appears to be part of an effort to develop more versatile, faster-acting and longer-running spacecraft for remote sensing and satellite deployment.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in today’s statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the X-37B “successfully completed all mission objectives.”

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