Intuitive Machines has successfully launched its lunar lander, which, once it lands on the moon, would be the first commercial vehicle to do so. Photo via Intuitive Machines

Houston-based Intuitive Machines just made one giant leap for mankind.

On February 15, the space exploration, infrastructure, and services company successfully launched its IM-1 mission Nova-C class lunar lander on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The launch followed a one-day delay.

The lunar touchdown of the Odysseus spacecraft is set for February 22, according to The Washington Post.

“If all goes well … it will become the first American spacecraft to gently set down on the moon’s surface since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972,” The New York Times notes.

It also would be the first commercial vehicle to land on the moon.

The IM-1 mission lander launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:05 a.m. CST. The lunar lander reached its orbit about 48 minutes later, and made its first communication with Intuitive Machines’ mission operations center in Houston at 12:59 a.m. CST.

The Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission is the company’s first attempted lunar landing as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, a key part of NASA’s Artemis moon exploration efforts. The science and technology payloads sent to the moon’s surface as part of the initiative are aimed at gearing up for human missions and a sustainable human presence on the moon’s surface.

NASA is the primary customer for this mission, paying Intuitive Machines $118 million to take its payloads to the moon’s surface, including a stereo camera to observe the plume of dust kicked up during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals, according to The Times. Also aboard is cargo such as a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the Moon Phases project by American artist Jeff Koons.

“We are keenly aware of the immense challenges that lie ahead,” Steve Altemus, co-founder, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “However, it is precisely in facing these challenges head-on that we recognize the magnitude of the opportunity before us: to softly return the United States to the surface of the Moon for the first time in 52 years.”

The liftoff of the IM-1 mission was targeted for a multiday launch window that opened at 11:57 p.m. CST on February 13. Intuitive Machines and SpaceX had concluded pre-launch testing on February 12.

“I feel fairly confident that we’re going to be successful softly touching down on the moon,” Altemus told The New York Times. “We’ve done the tests. We tested and tested and tested. As much testing as we could do.”

Last year, Intuitive Machines went public through a SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with Inflection Point Acquisition Corp. The Houston company’s stock trades on the NASDAQ stock market. Following the launch of the lunar lander, Intuitive Machines saw a spike in its stock price on February 15.

A Rice University study will consider how "design strategies aimed at improving civic engagement in stormwater infrastructure could help reduce catastrophic flooding." Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

Rice University secures NSF support to look into Houston flooding

troubled waters

Houston will be the setting of a new three-year National Science Foundation-funded study that focuses on a phenomenon the city is quite familiar with: flooding.

Conducted by Rice University, the study will consider how "design strategies aimed at improving civic engagement in stormwater infrastructure could help reduce catastrophic flooding," according to a statement.

The team will begin its research in the Trinity/Houston Gardens neighborhood and will implement field research, participatory design work and hydrological impact analyses.

Rice professor of anthropology Dominic Boyer and Rice's Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope are co-principal investigators on the study. They'll be joined by Phil Bedient, director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice, and Jessica Eisma, a civil engineer at the University of Texas at Arlington.

According to Boyer, the study will bring tougher researchers from across disciplines as well as community members and even elementary-aged students.

"Our particular focus will be on green stormwater infrastructure—techniques like bioswale, green roofs and rain gardens—that are more affordable than conventional concrete infrastructure and ones where community members can be more directly involved in the design and implementation phases,” Boyer said. “We envision helping students and other community members design and complete projects like community rain gardens that offer a variety of beneficial amenities and can also mitigate flooding.”

Rice's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED Center, is a leader in flood mitigation research and innovation.

In 2021, the center developed its FIRST radar-based flood assessment, mapping, and early-warning system based on more than 350 maps that simulate different combinations of rainfall over various areas of the watershed. The system was derived from the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS), which Bedient created 20 years ago.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Virgin Trains may be speeding into Texas. Photo courtesy of Virgin Trains

Transportation company steers talk of high-speed trains between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio

ALL ABOARD?

You've likely heard of the proposed high-speed "bullet" train that would connect Houston and Dallas, as well as the proposed transportation-in-a-tube concept that would link Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Laredo.

Now, another possible alternative to planes, Amtrak trains, and automobiles has chugged into the picture.

Virgin Trains USA, a transportation startup that plans to trade its shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange, is exploring two high-speed routes in Texas — one tying together Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and the other between Houston and Dallas. All four of those cities are plagued by ever-increasing traffic tie-ups.

There's no word yet on when these routes might take shape. At this point, they're merely ideas, and ahead of the company going public, officials at Virgin Trains are staying mum.

In all, Virgin Trains has outlined seven potential routes in the U.S. beyond what it already has on the drawing board.

"Our goal is to build railroad systems in North America that connect major metropolitan areas with significant traffic and congestion," the company says in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Virgin Trains aims to tie together heavily populated cities separated by 200- to 300-mile distances that are "too long to drive, too short to fly." It wants to run the trains along existing transportation corridors — rail, highway or a combination of the two — "to cost-effectively build our systems, as opposed to developing entirely new corridors at potentially significantly higher costs."

If the Virgin name sounds familiar, it should. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority investor in Virgin Trains, which already operates a South Florida route between Miami and West Palm Beach. West Palm Beach-to-Orlando and Orlando-to-Tampa routes also are in the works in Florida, in addition to a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route. Virgin's other transportation investments include airlines and space travel.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, says he's on board with the Branson-backed Virgin Trains venture — not as an "anti-Amtrak" move but as an advancement in U.S. passenger rail travel.

"Speaking from the experience of someone who spent almost his entire career watching Sir Richard innovate, invest, and take risks, I firmly believe this could be a real shot in the arm for passenger rail in the United States," Mathews writes on the association's website. "Like all entrepreneurs, Sir Richard isn't afraid to fail, and he has made a few bad bets in the past. But he's also made some very good ones, and has transformed not just travel but philosophies wherever he has gone."

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

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Exclusive: Houston hydrogen spinout names energy industry veteran as CEO

good as gold

Cleantech startup Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based energy biotech company Cemvita, has named oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as its CEO.

Sekhon previously held roles at companies such as NextEra Energy Resources and Hess. Most recently, he was a leader on NextEra’s strategy and business development team.

Gold H2 uses microbes to convert oil and gas in old, uneconomical wells into clean hydrogen. The approach to generating clean hydrogen is part of a multibillion-dollar market.

Gold H2 spun out of Cemvita last year with Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita, leading the transition. Gold H2 spun out after successfully piloting its microbial hydrogen technology, producing hydrogen below 80 cents per kilogram.

The Gold H2 venture had been a business unit within Cemvita.

“I was drawn to Gold H2 because of its innovative mission to support the U.S. economy in this historical energy transition,” Sekhon says in a news release. “Over the last few years, my team [at NextEra] was heavily focused on the commercialization of clean hydrogen. When I came across Gold H2, it was clear that it was superior to each of its counterparts in both cost and [carbon intensity].”

Gold H2 explains that oil and gas companies have wrestled for decades with what to do with exhausted oil fields. With Gold H2’s first-of-its-kind biotechnology, these companies can find productive uses for oil wells by producing clean hydrogen at a low cost, the startup says.

“There is so much opportunity ahead of Gold H2 as the first company to use microbes in the subsurface to create a clean energy source,” Sekhon says. “Driving this dynamic industry change to empower clean hydrogen fuel production will be extremely rewarding.”

In 2022, Gold H2 celebrated its successful Permian Basin pilot and raised early-stage funding. In addition to Gold H2, Cemvita also spun out a resource mining operation called Endolith. In a podcast episode, Karimi discussed Cemvita's growth and spinout opportunities.

Rice University's student startup competition names 2024 winners, awards $100,000 in prizes

taking home the W

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

The rest of the winners included:

  • Second place and $25,000: CoFlux Purification
  • Third place and $15,000: Bonfire
  • Outstanding Achievement in Social Impact Award and $1,500: EmpowerU
  • Outstanding Achievement in Artificial Intelligence and $1,000: Sups and Levytation
  • Outstanding Achievement in Consumer Goods Prize and $1,000: The Blind Bag
  • Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion and the Arts and $1,500: Melody
  • Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes and $1,000: Solidec and HEXASpec
  • Outstanding Undergraduate Startup Award and $2,500: Women’s Wave
  • Audience Choice Award and $2,000: CoFlux Purification

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

HEXASpec was founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program. Photo courtesy of Rice

2 Houston high schools rank among America's top 100 in 2024, says U.S. News

best in class

Two Houston high schools are dominating U.S. News and World Report's prestigious annual list of the country's best public high schools.

The 2024 rankings from U.S. News, released April 23, put Houston ISD’s Carnegie Vanguard High School at No. 31 nationally (up from No. 35 last year and No. 40 in 2022) among the country’s best high schools. The school also ranks No. 248 nationally among the best STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) high schools and No. 12 among the best magnet high schools.

Meanwhile, DeBakey High School for Health Professions ranks No. 70 nationally among the best high schools (down from No. 66 last year and No. 50 in 2022) and No. 19 among best magnet high schools. DeBakey ranked No. 426 nationally among best STEM high schools.

Topping the national list for 2024 is the BASIS Peoria Charter School in Peoria, Arizona.

Each year, U.S. News evaluates about 18,000 high schools on six factors: college readiness, reading and math proficiency, reading and math performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth, and graduation rates.

“The 2024 Best High Schools rankings offer a starting point for parents to understand a school’s academic performance, whether it’s a prospective school or one that their child is already attending,” said LaMont Jones, Ed.D., the managing editor of education at U.S. News, in a release. “Accessible data on our high schools can empower families across the country as they navigate today’s educational environment and plan for the future.”

Elsewhere in Texas
Around the state, these Texas high schools also made it into the top 100 nationally:

  • Dallas ISD's The School for the Talented and Gifted, No. 6 (unchanged from last year). No. 21 nationally among the best STEM high schools, and No. 3 among the best magnet high schools.
  • Dallas ISD's Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School, No. 23 (down from No. 18 last year) and No. 10 nationally among the best magnet high schools.
  • Dallas ISD's Science and Engineering Magnet School, No. 29 nationally among the best high schools (down from No. 23 last year), No. 37 nationally among the best STEM high schools, and No. 11 nationally among the best magnet high schools.
  • Grand Prairie ISD's Collegiate Institute, No. 30 (up from No. 188 last year). No. 6 nationally among best charter high schools.
  • Austin ISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, No. 38 (down from No. 32 last year and No. 34 in 2022). No. 34 nationally among the best STEM high schools.
  • BASIS San Antonio - Shavano Campus, No. 64 (up from No. 81 last year and No. 77 in 2022). No. 76 nationally among the best STEM high schools and No. 13 nationally among the best charter high schools.
  • Brownsville ISD's Early College High School, No. 71 (up from No. 229 last year).
  • Dallas ISD’s Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet, No. 85 (up from No. 93 last year and No. 48 in 2022) . No. 21 nationally among the best magnet high schools.

When broken down just to Texas schools, Houston's Carnegie Vanguard High School (No. 5) and DeBakey High School for Health Professions (No. 8) are both in the top 10 best-rated public high schools in Texas this year, U.S. News says.

Other Houston-area schools that rank among Texas' 100 best are:

  • No. 24 – Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts, Houston ISD
  • No. 25 – Challenge Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 29 – Young Women's College Prep Academy, Houston ISD
  • No. 32 – Eastwood Academy, Houston ISD
  • No. 37 – Harmony School of Innovation - Katy, Katy
  • No. 40 – Kerr High School, Alief ISD, Houston
  • No. 43 – Houston Academy for International Studies, Houston ISD
  • No. 47 – East Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 59 – Clear Horizons Early College High School, Clear Creek ISD, Houston
  • No. 61 – Seven Lakes High School, Katy ISD
  • No. 63 – Early College Academy at Southridge, Spring ISD, Houston
  • No. 68 – KIPP Houston High School, Houston
  • No. 70 – North Houston Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 71 – Victory Early College High School, Aldine ISD, Houston
  • No. 75 – Tompkins High School, Katy ISD
  • No. 76 – Clements High School, Fort Bend ISD, Sugar Land
  • No. 82 – Sharpstown International School, Houston ISD
  • No. 85 – Tomball Star Academy, Tomball ISD
  • No. 89 – Westchester Academy for International Studies, Spring Branch ISD, Houston
  • No. 95 – Harmony School of Innovation - Sugar Land, Sugar Land
  • No. 97 – Harmony School of Discovery - Houston, Houston
  • No. 98 – Energy Institute High School, Houston ISD

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.