Seattle Roundup: Commercial Space Setbacks, Cray’s Big Deal, & More

For the commercial space industry, this disastrous week began with a fiery setback and ended with a tragedy. The implications of two catastrophic vehicle anomalies will take time to play out, but Redmond, WA-based Planetary Resources pledges to press on. Meanwhile, supercomputer maker Cray signs a major deal with the U.K. Met Office, laying bare the U.S.’s own lagging position in weather forecasting. Also, Intellectual Ventures has partnered with Seattle’s REFLX Labs. Details follow on these and other developments.

—On Tuesday, the rocket carrying a Planetary Resources’ prototype as well as equipment and supplies for the International Space Station suffered “a catastrophic failure” just after launching, as Orbital Sciences, the launch vehicle maker, put it. (This National Geographic story explains how NASA safety officials actually triggered the rocket’s self-destruct system after observing the malfunction in an attempt to protect lives and property down range.)

Planetary Resources began its post about the impact on the asteroid miner’s plans with some perspective: “As yesterday’s launch failure and the history of spaceflight remind us, space exploration is not without risk.” While millions of dollars of equipment, including Planetary Resources’ test platform, the Arkyd 3, were lost, the company says its “development schedule, budget and plan are practically unaffected. … We appreciate the support and well-wishes we’ve had pouring in from around the world, and want to remind everyone that the A3 was just a robot.”

That was underscored by today’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert, which claimed the life of the co-pilot and severely injured the pilot, who ejected from the vehicle, a prototype for a planned space tourism business. Early reports suggest the “anomaly” that downed SpaceShipTwo happened after it was released from a carrier vehicle and ignited its rocket engines.

—Seattle supercomputer maker Cray (NASDAQ: CRAY) announced a $128 million, multi-year deal to provide the U.K. Met Office with its XC supercomputing and storage systems that will help turn some 10 million daily weather observations into models of the atmosphere that inform thousands of forecasts. Cray went on to post a $7.4 million quarterly profit, up from an $11 million loss a year ago, helped by the completion of earlier deals to deliver supercomputers to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass took note of the U.K. deal as further evidence that, “The computational resources available to the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) for numerical weather prediction is rapidly falling behind leading weather prediction centers around the world.” Mass noted that the new Cray systems will give U.K. weather forecasters on the order of twenty times more computing power than their counterparts in the U.S., a country that’s 33 times larger, counting only the lower 48 states.

Intellectual Ventures (IV), the Bellevue, WA-based company known best for its trove of technology patents, announced a partnership between its Invention Development Fund and REFLX Labs, a Seattle startup. The deal will help REFLX commercialize its Boogio Bionic Foot Sensors, IV says, through access to new inventions from around its network of inventors, licenses to existing IV-owned intellectual property, and business development assistance.

—There’s confirmation this week that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has indeed set up shop in Seattle, just down the street from Amazon’s corporate headquarters. GeekWire tried to sneak inside the location—described as an engineering office—first spotted by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

—Need some great weekend reading? Be sure to check out Xconomy’s exclusive special report on innovation in Ireland, which includes profiles of startups, incubators, tech transfer efforts, and big technology players in everything from pharma to fintech, as well as two things Seattleites love: craft beer and coffee.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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