Accion Systems takes on $3M in Boeing-led round to advance its tiny satellite thrusters

Accion Systems, the startup aiming to reinvent satellite propulsion with an innovative and tiny new thruster, has attracted significant investment from Boeing’s HorizonX Ventures. The $3 million round should give the company a bit of breathing room while it continues to prove and improve its technology.

Accion Systems, the startup aiming to reinvent satellite propulsion with an innovative and tiny new thruster, has attracted significant investment from Boeing’s HorizonX Ventures. The $3 million round should give the company a bit of breathing room while it continues to prove and improve its technology.

“Investing in startups with next-generation concepts accelerates satellite innovation, unlocking new possibilities and economics in Earth orbit and deep space,” said HorizonX Ventures managing director Brian Schettler in a press release.

Accion, whose founder and CEO Natalya Bailey graced the stage of Disrupt just a few weeks ago, makes what’s called a “tiled ionic liquid electrospray” propulsion system, or TILE. This system is highly efficient and can be made the size of a postage stamp or much larger depending on the requirements of the satellite.

Example of a TILE attached to a satellite chassis.

The company has tested its tech in terrestrial facilities and in space, but it hasn’t been used for any missions just yet — though that may change soon. A pair of student-engineered cubesats equipped with TILE thrusters are scheduled to take off on RocketLab’s first big commercial payload launch, “It’s Business Time.” It’s been delayed a few times but early November is the next launch window, so everyone cross your fingers.

Another launch scheduled for November is the IRVINE 02 cubesat, which will sport TILEs and go up aboard a Falcon 9 loaded with supplies for the International Space Station.

The Boeing investment (Gettylab also participated in the round) doesn’t include any guarantees like equipping Boeing-built satellites with the thrusters. But the company is certainly already dedicated to this type of tech and the arrangement is characterized as a partnership — so it’s definitely a possibility.

Natalya Bailey and Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures) at Disrupt Berlin 2017.

A Boeing representative told me that this is aimed to help Accion scale, and that the latter will have access to the former’s testing facilities and expertise. “We believe there will be many applications for Accion’s propulsion system, and will be monitoring and assessing the tech as it continues to mature,” they wrote in an email.

I asked Accion what the new funding will be directed towards, but a representative only indicated that it would be used for the usual things: research, operations, staff expenses, and so on. Not some big skunk works project, then. The company’s last big round was in 2016, when it raised $7.5 million.

Boeing/Saab joint T-X design wins Air Force’s jet trainer competition

Latest $9.2 billion contract will deliver at least 351 new advanced jet trainers.

Article intro image

Enlarge / The Boeing/Saab T-X has won the Air Force's advanced jet trainer contract. (credit: Boeing)

The end-of-the-year contract rush for the US Defense Department has been good to Boeing. As the clock ticks down on the fiscal year, Boeing grabbed its third DOD contract in a month. This time, it's the Air Force's T-X next-generation advanced jet trainer contract. Boeing's joint bid with Swedish aerospace company Saab came in more than 50 percent below the Air Force's initial cost estimate, shutting out Lockheed and the US subsidiary of Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica). Both of those entities bid trainers based on existing aircraft.

The award comes less than a week after the Air Force awarded a Boeing-Leonardo bid the win for the Air Force's replacement of its UH-1 nuclear security helicopters. And on August 30, Boeing won the Navy's MQ-25 unmanned carrier-launched tanker contract.

The T-X is designed to bring pilot training into the 21st century, providing an aircraft to train pilots in the pipeline to fly the F-35 Lightning II. The new jets—at least 351 of them—will replace the Air Force's aging fleet of Northrop T-38 trainers. Those T-38s, based on the Northrop F-5 fighter, have been in service since the 1960s. The new contract also includes 46 training simulators and ground equipment. It could eventually be expanded to 475 aircraft and may also result in international sales to other countries who have committed to buying the F-35.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Boeing wins bid to build the Navy’s carrier-launched tanker drone

Four MQ-25 “Stingray” prototypes will set course for active carrier drones by 2024.

Enlarge / A Boeing MQ-25 demonstrator during deck-handling is an unmanned combat aircraft system designed to provide refueling capability to extend the combatBoeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueler, known as T1, is currently being tested at Boeing’s St. Louis site. T1 has completed engine runs and deck handling demonstrations designed to prove the agility and ability of the aircraft to move around within the tight confines of a carrier deck. (Photo: Eric Shindelbower, Boeing) (credit: Boeing )

The US Navy has awarded Boeing an $805 million contract to construct four prototypes of its design for the MQ-25 “Stingray." The uncrewed, carrier-based tanker aircraft will help extend the range of the Navy’s future carrier air wings and keep carriers themselves out of range of coastal defenses.

Boeing beat out Lockheed Martin and General Atomics for the contract. Northrop Grumman—which built the Navy’s first carrier-based drone prototype , the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration (UCAS-D)—dropped out of the competition last year. The prototype contract is the first step toward delivering “initial operating capability,” a first production run of the drones, by 2024.

The MQ-25’s design requirements called for an aircraft capable of launching from a carrier deck and delivering 14,000 pounds (6,300kg) of fuel to aircraft 500 nautical miles (926km) away. That capacity and range, along with the low-observable shape of the drone, could essentially double the range of  F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-35C Joint Strike Fighter attack missions. Eventually, Boeing could deliver up to 72 Stingrays at a cost of $13 billion.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

NASA names first astronauts for the inaugural commercial flights to the ISS

NASA has announced the names of the first astronauts who’ll fly to the International Space Station on American-made, commercial spacecraft. The crews will fly to the space station on rockets built by NASA commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX. “Today, our country’s dreams of greater achievements in space are within our grasp,” said NASA administrator Jim […]

NASA has announced the names of the first astronauts who’ll fly to the International Space Station on American-made, commercial spacecraft.

The crews will fly to the space station on rockets built by NASA commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX. “Today, our country’s dreams of greater achievements in space are within our grasp,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, in a statement. “Today’s announcement advances our great American vision and strengthens the nation’s leadership in space.”

Nine astronauts were selected to crew the first test flights and missions of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. 

“The men and women we assign to these first flights are at the forefront of this exciting new time for human spaceflight,” said Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

After each company completes their crewed test flights successfully, NASA will start the process to finally certify the spacecraft and systems for regular crew missions to the space station.

So far, NASA has contracted for six missions with each company, with as many as four astronauts crewing each commercial spacecraft.

In the 18 years that NASA has had a presence on the space station, the space agency has conducted experiments in biology, biotechnology, physics and space science that have resulted in thousands of spin-off technologies, the agency said.

With the new spaceflight capabilities through Boeing and SpaceX (initially), NASA says it will maintain a crew of seven astronauts on the space station for continued scientific research and experimentation on understanding and mitigating the challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

Here are the astronauts who will be taking flight:

Starliner Test-Flight Astronauts

Eric Boe/ Photo courtesy of NASA

Eric Boe: The Miami-born and Atlanta-raised Boe came to NASA from the Air Force, where he rose to the rank of colonel as a fighter pilot and test pilot. Boe was first selected as an astronaut in 2000 and piloted the space shuttle Endeavor. Boe was also on the final flight of the Discovery before the Space Shuttle Program was sunset.

Christopher Ferguson/Photo by Robin Marchant/FilmMagic

Christopher Ferguson: A retired Navy captain who hails from Philadelphia, Ferguson piloted space shuttle Atlantis, and commanded the shuttle Endeavour. Ferguson was on the Atlantis for its final flight with the Space Shuttle Program.

Nicole Aunapu Mann/ Photo courtesy of NASA

Nicole Aunapu Mann: A lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, Nicole Aunapu Mann is an F/A-18 test pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in more than 25 aircraft and was selected to be an astronaut in 2013. The test flight with Boeing will be her first trip to space.

The Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, according to a NASA statement.

Crew Dragon Test-Flight Astronauts

Robert Behnken/Photo courtesy of NASA

Robert Behnken: Missouri native Robert Behnken has a doctorate in engineering and is a flight test engineer and colonel in the Air Force. Behnken first joined the astronaut corps in 2000 and flew aboard space shuttle Endeavour twice, performing six spacewalks that totaled 37 hours.

Douglas Hurley/ Photo courtesy of NASA

Douglas Hurley: Douglas Hurley joined the Marine Corps and served as a test pilot before joining NASA in 2000. The Apalachin, N.Y. native piloted both the space shuttle Endeavor and Atlantis.

According to NASA, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Starliner First-Mission Astronauts

Josh Cassada/Photo courtesy NASA

Josh Cassada: From his home in Minnesota to a career in the Navy, commander and test pilot Josh Cassada has spent more than 3,500 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft. He was selected as an astronaut in 2013. His Starliner mission will be his first spaceflight.

Sunita Williams/Photo courtesy of NASA

Sunita Williams: A Needham, Mass. by-way-of Euclid, Ohio naval test pilot, Williams was a captain in the Navy before her retirement. She was selected as an astronaut in 1998 and has spent 322 days on the International Space Station. Williams commanded the space station and has also performed seven spacewalks.

Crew Dragon First-Mission Astronauts

Victor Glover/ Photo courtesy NASA

Victor Glover: Pomona, Calif.-born Victor Glover is a Navy commander, aviator and test pilot who has flown more than 3,000 hours in more than 40 different aircraft. With 24 combat missions and 400 carrier landings, Glover was selected as part of the 2013 astronaut candidate class and will be making his first spaceflight aboard the Dragon.

Michael Hopkins/ Photo courtesy NASA

Michael Hopkins: A former farm boy who grew up near Richland, Mo., Michael Hopkins went on to be a colonel in the air force where he was a flight-test engineer before being selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2009. Hopkins spent 166 days on the International Space Station and has been on two space walks.

NASA said that additional crew members would be assigned by international partners at a later date.

Boeing’s new R&D center focuses on autonomous flight

Flying cars are BS. But there is actually a chance that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in general aviation as startups and major players like Airbus are looking to modern technology to allow more people to take flight without having to first learn how to steer a Cessna 152 down a short runway […]

Flying cars are BS. But there is actually a chance that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in general aviation as startups and major players like Airbus are looking to modern technology to allow more people to take flight without having to first learn how to steer a Cessna 152 down a short runway (though that’s a good skill to have, too). Boeing, which is not currently a player in general aviation, clearly doesn’t want to be left behind. The company today announced that it is opening a new R&D office in Boston that will focus on designing, building and flying autonomous aircraft.

Perkins + Will (PRNewsfoto/Boeing)

The new office will be staffed by Boeing engineers and employees of its Aurora Flight Sciences subsidiary, which it acquired last year. Unsurprisingly, the company also plans to work with the boffins at MIT, which is the landlord of the company’s new offices in Kendall Square.

“Boeing is leading the development of new autonomous vehicles and future transportation systems that will bring flight closer to home,” said Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, in today’s announcement. “By investing in this new research facility, we are creating a hub where our engineers can collaborate with other Boeing engineers and research partners around the world and leverage the Cambridge innovation ecosystem.”

There’s obviously plenty left to be figured out with regards to autonomous flights — or even just giving people access to semi-autonomous aircraft that would fall under the FAA’s ultralight designation so that the pilot wouldn’t need a pilot’s license.

Right now, the rules are pretty clear about what’s possible and what isn’t — and most ideas around “urban air transportation” (at least in the U.S.) aren’t feasible under today’s rules. But those rules were written for an aviation system that handles fewer than 250,000 small general aviation aircraft, most of which feature very little in terms of automation. The FAA has shown some ability to act relatively fast when new technology comes along (see: drone regulations), so maybe that’ll be the case here, too. By 2020, the average Cessna you see puttering about in the sky above you will be close to 50 years old, but who knows, maybe we’ll see sleek electrified personal Boeing drones zooming 500 feet above our heads instead.