Sunday, June 26, 2022

Space factory will make materials ‘unmanufacturable on Earth’

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A prototype space factory capable of producing materials that cannot be made on Earth will be launched from the UK later this summer.

Space Forge, a Welsh startup, will make more efficient semiconductors and stronger, lighter alloys. These materials, which appear to have widespread use within the decade, will be produced once the satellite is launched from Spaceport Cornwall in September.

It is because satellite technology has become cheaper over time. “The price to start has dropped massively. It used to cost $20,000 (£16,500) per kilogram. You can get as low as $1,000 (£830) these days,” said Andrew Bacon, a co-founder of Space Forge Sky News.

“There are materials that are worth much more. Nickel-based alloys used in aircraft turbines can cost $100,000 per kg. So the economics (of space manufacturing) are starting to work because the starting price has dropped so much.”

While other companies have developed small batches of materials in space and brought them back to Earth, this will be the first to develop the products on a commercial scale.

Space Forge will work with Virgin Orbit to launch its ForgeStar to use microgravity to create the materials. Virgin Orbit will provide a LauncherOne rocket for the first launch of the ForgeStar platform.

“We always say the earth is a pretty bad place to make things,” Josh Western, the company’s founder, told Wales Online. “Its dense atmosphere, constant temperatures, and of course gravity weighing us down means we’re always fighting against the natural environment. In space, that’s not a problem.”

Mr Bacon continued: “Suppose you make an aluminum alloy. When you mix the metals on Earth they separate into two layers with the heavy lead at the bottom and the aluminum at the top. But in microgravity you don’t have that problem and you can actually mix them right together.

“There is also no contamination from the air – no oxygen leak to create an oxide. The unique conditions make space a far better place to make things than here on Earth.”

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