Destinus plans to fly hydrogen-powered hypersonic freighter with $29 million seed round – TechCrunch

Startups

A new venture from space infrastructure company Momentus, founder and former CEO Mikhail Kokorich, aims to build a hypersonic aircraft for autonomous cargo delivery around the world. While the craft is far from complete, let alone testing and certifying, a $29 million seed round should move things forward.

The said plan is to build a hypersonic vehicle (i.e. a multiple of the speed of sound) powered by liquid hydrogen and with only water as exhaust gas, which would allow point-to-point delivery almost anywhere in the world. Ambitious, yes, expensive, yes. Difficult to engineer, yes.

The new company, Destinus, is Kokorich’s first big step since he left Momentus shortly before his SPAC. He left under something of a cloud, as there were allegations that the company had misled investors and toned down security vulnerabilities related to his property (Kokorich is Russian).

These issues (and the subsequent $7 million settlement with the SEC) do not appear to have eroded the confidence of Destinus’ investors, including Conny & Co, Quiet Capital, One Way Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures, Cathexis Ventures, ACE & Company. . The round of 26.8 million Swiss francs (about $29 million) suggests they see a market and a way to conquer 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’s always described), allegedly used for space-based testing for three-letter bodies.

The Jungfrau, as the Destinus-designed prototype is called, is said to be a fully autonomous ‘hyperplane’, as it won’t go all the way to space and stay well below the Karman line, but rather close to vacuum for aerodynamic purposes. They aim for speeds of up to mach 15 at 60 kilometers – the actual ground speed depends on many factors and is not stated so easily. Then the plane will re-enter and glide to its destination.

Illustration of a hypothetical flight path from Miami to Seoul.

Illustration of a hypothetical (and not to scale) flight path from Miami to Seoul.

None of this has been tested, not to say hypothetical. Kokorich told TechCrunch that the company flew its small-scale prototype, about as long as a car, last year and expects to fly the larger Jungfrau later in 2022. They are currently nailing down the guidance, navigation and control systems that will allow the vessel to operate autonomously.

“This year we plan to conduct ground and flight testing of ATR . to start [air turbo rocket] engines with hydrogen as fuel, which we are developing ourselves,” he says. “Like a turbojet, the ATR engine is an air-breathing jet engine. Due to its parameters, it is a suitable engine for both the subsonic and supersonic flight phases of our hyperplane. Later next year, we plan to fly the next iteration of the prototype with both ATR and a second hydrogen rocket engine – it will be the configuration for our commercial vehicles.”

And what will these company cars do? They plan to start with a payload of about a ton, with the intention of delivering “auxiliary and emergency cargo anywhere on Earth”. Using cheap, clean hydrogen as a fuel will allow them to cut costs and compete on some level with existing freight providers. “But first, we plan to target a few categories of early adopters,” Kokorich said. “First and foremost emergency cargo – such as parts for sensitive production cycles, or valuable perishable goods such as isotopes with a short half-life for the treatment of cancer, or human organs.”

It’s a pleasant thought. But all this presupposes that the craft is not only able to fly at the planned speeds and distances, but also does so within a complex and international legal framework. Autonomous and supersonic aircraft are subject to numerous restrictions in many countries, and Destinus’ craft is said to be both.

Kokorich said the company already has permission to fly at subsonic speed (presumably in Switzerland, where the company is based), and that supersonic testing and the required permissions will be delivered with the third prototype (ie next year). Because it flies so high, the sound of its boom would be a fraction of that of low-altitude fighters and the like. But maybe a new regulatory schedule altogether, something Destinus hopes to anticipate:

“We have begun to work with both European and national regulators to prepare new certification and regulatory requirements for the hyperplan,” he said. “There is currently an active effort between national and European regulators to define certification requirements and regulations for autonomous aircraft and high-speed systems such as suborbital, hypersonic and supersonic aircraft.”

It’s a lot of ifs and big claims, but the fact that there is a flying prototype (even if it can only carry a few bags of groceries) gives them an edge over many others trying to push the boundaries, so to speak, in space travel. We’ll be back with Destina closer to scheduled test flights.

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