Varda Space called on SpaceX for the launch of a small satellite designed to demonstrate the production of materials in space. The satellite will be part of a carpooling mission scheduled for early 2023.
The satellite will spend up to three months in space and produce a variety of materials commonly used in manufacturing. The materials will be returned in a re-entry capsule for testing.
Varda Space executives say they chose SpaceX for its reliability and low cost of launch. The terms of the contract have not yet been released.
“Launch costs are a critical driver of our economy,” said Varda Space co-founder Delian Asparouhov. However, he did not rule out the possibility of using other providers to launch small satellites in the future: “There was a favorable economy for [competing satellite launch providers] Photon and electron. If you focus the risk on one vendor, it can be difficult to recover.
While SpaceX has focused much of its efforts on developing the ability to send people into space and eventually to the Moon and Mars, it has proven to be no slacker in the launch market. of material. Existing launch services and contracts range from the launch of NASA’s Europa Clipper to dedicated launches of bundles of small satellites that it officially calls Transporter missions.
The Transporter missions are separate from SpaceX’s frequent launches of Starlink satellites and aim to speed up the launch schedule for small satellites manufactured by various organizations and companies. Previously, small satellites like Varda Space’s had to wait for space when launching larger payloads.
Manufacturing in space
While there has not yet been widespread investment in the development of an alien manufacturing capability, the first tests in alien manufacturing processes include the Soviet Union’s Soyuz 6. During this mission, cosmonauts Georgy Shonin and Valeri Kubasov tested welding techniques using a tool called the Vulkan.
During the U.S. Skylab missions, the crew performed experiments in space fabrication and materials processing using equipment that included a multipurpose electric furnace, crystal growth chamber, and electron beam gun. American experiments continued with the Spacelab missions launched during the space shuttle program.
The International Space Station frequently conducts material science experiments and helps develop new manufacturing techniques. Some of these techniques may be applicable to out-of-world manufacturing, particularly with new developments in additive manufacturing technology designed for use in microgravity or low-gravity environments.
Varda Space’s satellite will be the first in a series that continues work to develop the technology and techniques needed to expand manufacturing into space. Two more satellites will be launched in 2024. Asparouhov says the goal is to build on work already done rather than reinventing the wheel:
“The ISS has fabricated a wide variety of materials. We are not doing new science. The hardest part, he says, will be “touching the atmosphere at Mach 28” when they’re ready to report the results back to Earth.
Will this lead to large-scale manufacturing outside of Earth? Many people, including the founders of the now defunct Deep Space Industries and a few “still working” companies like Moon Express, have studied the possibility of extracting raw materials off Earth. It would make sense that much of these raw materials would also be processed and used to create products out of Earth. At some point in the future, companies like Varda Space could have many factories in Earth orbit and possibly elsewhere in our solar system.