A startup hopes to construct robot space factories that can manufacture materials impossible to produce on Earth
For decades now, astronauts and scientists have been conducting experiments in space. These have demonstrated that a number of materials, such as ZBLAN fiber optics, are of much higher quality when produced in ‘microgravity’ – a term to describe the very low levels of gravity experienced in an orbiting spacecraft. Now, space tech startup Space Forge has raised funding to deploy satellites for manufacturing materials such as new alloys, medicines, and semiconductors. The startup has raised £7.6 million ($10.2 million) to build small, reusable satellites. These ForgeStar satellites will be launched into space on existing launch systems, such as those being developed by Virgin Orbit. Once in orbit, the ForgeStar vehicles will orbit for between one and six months. Inside, automated robotic systems will manufacture and test alloys, pharmaceuticals, and electronic components that either cannot be made on Earth or that can be made more effectively in space.
After a predetermined length of time, the satellite will return to earth, along with its cargo. Although the cost of launching a manufacturing unit into space is higher than producing materials on earth, the results can be much better than those achieved on the ground. For example, a substance called gallium nitride, used to make LEDs, is difficult to solidify in large amounts because its two constituent molecules don’t always bind properly, leading to defects. In microgravity, the movement of the melted fluid is reduced, decreasing defects.
Space Forge’s investors include those based in the UK, US, and elsewhere, including the US-based SpaceFund and the Berlin-based World Fund, which backs companies pioneering new green technologies. Space Forge co-founder Josh Western explained, “Earth is a wonderful place to live on but terrible for manufacturing so many things… in space you have no gravity to interfere with the mixing of materials, while you have a pure vacuum and no atmospheric pollution. And you also turn your instruments towards or away from the Sun to heat or cool them rapidly.”