A new venture by the founder and former CEO of space infrastructure company Momentus, Mikhail Kokorich, aims to build a hypersonic aircraft for autonomous cargo delivery around the world. While the vessel is far from complete, let alone testing and certification, a $29 million seed round should help things along.
The stated plan is to build a hypersonic vehicle (i.e. multiples of the speed of sound) powered by liquid hydrogen and with only water as an exhaust, which would allow point-to-point delivery virtually anywhere on the planet. Ambitious, yes, expensive, yes. Difficult to design, also yes.
The new company, Destinus, is Kokorich’s first major move since he left Momentus shortly before the latter’s SPAC. It came out under something of a cloud as there were allegations that the company misled investors and softened security issues related to its ownership (Kokorich being Russian).
These issues (and the subsequent $7 million settlement with the SEC) do not appear to have affected the confidence of Destinus investors, including Conny & Co, Quiet Capital, One Way Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures, Cathexis Ventures, ACE & Company. The 26.8 million Swiss franc (about $29 million) round suggests they see a market and a way to capture it.
A space plane is a winged aircraft designed to take off from the ground and travel out of the atmosphere and re-enter, all under its own power and navigation. The most famous is probably the US government’s mysterious X-37B (as it is invariably described), which is supposedly used for space tests for three-letter agencies.
The Jungfrau, as the prototype of the spacecraft designed by Destinus is called, would be a fully autonomous “hyperplane”, as it does not reach space, being well below the Karman line, but for aerodynamic purposes very close to the vacuum. They are aiming for speeds as high as mach 15 at 60 kilometers altitude – the actual speed will depend on many factors and is not so simply stated. Then the plane will re-enter and glide to its destination.
All this has not been tested, not to say hypothetical. Kokorich told Ploonge that the company flew its small-scale, car-length prototype last year and that it expects to fly the larger Jungfrau in late 2022. They are currently getting the guidance, navigation and control systems right. . that will allow the vessel to operate autonomously.
“This year, we plan to start ground and flight tests of the ATR [air turbo rocket] engines with hydrogen as fuel, which we are developing”, he said. “Like a turbojet, the ATR engine is a jet engine that breathes air. Due to its parameters, it is an engine suitable for the subsonic and supersonic phases of flight of our hyperplane. At the end of next year, we plan to fly the next iteration of the prototype with ATR and a second hydrogen rocket engine – it will be the setup for our commercial vehicles.”
And what will these commercial vehicles do? They plan to start with a payload capacity of around a ton, with the intention of providing “distress and emergency payload anywhere on Earth”. Using cheap, clean hydrogen as a fuel could allow them to cut costs and compete at some levels with existing cargo providers, “But first we plan to target some categories of early adopters,” Kokorich said. “First and foremost, emergency cargo – such as parts for sensitive production cycles or valuable perishables such as isotopes with short half-lives for cancer treatment or human organs.”
It’s a nice thought. But all this assumes that the spacecraft is capable not only of flying at the planned speeds and distances, but doing so within a complex, international legal framework. Autonomous and supersonic aircraft are subject to numerous restrictions in many countries, and the Destinus ship would be both.
Kokorich said the company already has permission to fly at subsonic speeds (presumably in Switzerland, where the company is based), and that supersonic testing and necessary permits will come with the third prototype (i.e. next year). By flying so high, the noise of its boom would be a fraction of that created by low-altitude fighters and the like. But there may need to be a complete new regulatory framework, something Destinus hopes to anticipate:
“We have started working with European and national regulators to prepare new certifications and regulatory requirements for the hyperplan,” he said. “There is currently an active effort among national and European regulators to define certification requirements and regulations for autonomous aircraft and high-speed systems such as suborbital, hypersonic and supersonic aircraft.”
That’s a lot of ifs and big claims, but the fact that there’s a flying prototype (even if it could only carry a few bags of groceries) puts them ahead of many others trying to push the envelope, so to speak, in aerospace. We will return with Destinus closer to the planned test flights.