Varda Space has tapped SpaceX for the launch of a small satellite designed to demonstrate the production of materials in space. The satellite will be part of a rideshare mission slated 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 reentry capsule for testing.
Varda Space executives say that they chose SpaceX for its reliability and low launch cost. The terms of the contract have not yet been released.
“Launch costs is a core driver of our economics,” said Varda Space co-founder Delian Asparouhov. However, he has not ruled out the possibility of using other small satellite launch providers in the future: “There were favorable economics for [competing satellite launch providers] Photon and Electron. If you concentrate risk around one vendor, it can be hard to recover.”
Although SpaceX has centered much of its efforts around developing the capacity to send people into space and eventually to the Moon and Mars, it has proven to be no slacker in the hardware launch market. Existing launch services and contracts range from launching NASA’s Europa Clipper to the dedicated launches of batches of small satellites that it officially refers to as the Transporter missions.
The Transporter missions are separate from SpaceX’s frequent launches of Starlink satellites and meant to speed up the launch schedule for small satellites made by a variety of organizations and businesses. Previously, small satellites like Varda Space’s had to wait for space on the launches of larger payloads.
Manufacturing In Space
Although there has not yet been widespread investment in the development of off-Earth manufacturing capacity, early tests in offworld 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 Vulkan.
During the American Skylab missions, the crew performed experiments in space manufacturing and material processing using equipment that included a multi-purpose electric furnace, a crystal growth chamber, and an electron beam gun. American experiments continued with the Spacelab missions launched during the Space Shuttle program.
The International Space Station frequently conducts experiments in materials sciences and assists with the development of new manufacturing techniques. Some of these techniques may be applicable for offworld manufacturing, especially with new developments in additive manufacturing technology designed for use in microgravity or lower gravity environments.
Varda Space’s satellite will be the first in a series that continues work in developing the technology and techniques needed to expand manufacturing into space. Two more satellites will be launched in 2024. Asparouhov says that the goal is to build on work that has already been done rather than reinvent the wheel:
“The ISS has done a wide variety of materials. We’re not doing new science.” The hardest part, he says, will be “hitting the atmosphere at Mach 28” when they’re ready to bring the results back to Earth.
Will this lead to widescale manufacturing off Earth? Many people, including the founders of the now-defunct Deep Space Industries and a few “still working on it” companies like Moon Express, have done work on the possibility of mining raw materials off Earth. It would make sense for much of these raw materials to be processed and used to create products off Earth, as well. At some point in the future, companies like Varda Space could have numerous factories in Earth orbit and possibly elsewhere in our solar system.