The reality of factories in space is now almost upon us, with the successful deployment of Varda Space Industries’ first satellite test mission.
The California start-up, co-founded by SpaceX veteran Will Bruey and Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov, has partnered with private satellite company Rocket Lab to launch the first element of the intended space manufacturing facility, last week.
“The world’s first space factory’s solar panels have found the sun and it’s beginning to de-tumble,” Varda announced last week on Twitter.
Once the commercial launch service has put the necessary production units in orbit, operations can begin, and materials produced will be returned to Earth in Varda’s re-entry vehicle.
1. Why manufacture in space?
Conditions in space, particularly freedom from the effects of gravity, enable innovations and improvements to products that are not possible on Earth.
Scientific research, for example work by pharmaceutical firm Merck on the International Space Station reported by CNN, proves that space-grown protein crystals develop more perfectly in space than they do on Earth.
This allows critical health treatments to be produced in more stable forms, as has been shown with pembrolizumab, an active ingredient in the immunotherapy drug Keytruda, used to fight cancer.
Varda’s efforts will build on these findings, initially focusing on space manufacturing of ritonavir, an anti-viral used to treat HIV and Covid-19. Other potential applications include fiber optics.
2. What about the cost?
Mass production in space has been made more viable by the advent of private satellite launch services such as those offered by Rocket Lab and SpaceX. Rocket Lab use 3D printing to cheapen and speed up the production of large components.
In addition, Varda is leveraging its work to sign and fulfill other lucrative contracts, such as a $60-million (€55-million) contract with the U.S. Air Force to use a re-entry vehicle as a hypersonic testbed. Varda’s test rig will travel at a speed of Mach-25 as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
Business Round Daily reported in March that Varda has raised around $150 million (€137 million) so far from investors and is valued at around $500 million (€548 million).
3. Are there other concerns?
Competitor companies also working on space manufacturing are Redwire, the Space Forge and the Exploration Company. There are already around 11,000 satellites circling planet Earth and innumerable pieces of space junk, prompting action by NASA and the US Congress.
Last year’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, noted that the increasing commercialization of space and humanity’s growing reliance on technology could result in a catastrophic spiral of effects for life on Earth, with just one satellite failure or a single space collision.