First came offshoring. Then, reshoring and nearshoring. Someday soon, manufacturers may also be debating the merits of “above shoring” or “off-planet manufacturing.”
Manufacturing in space has been talked about for decades. In fact, some of the first issues of ASSEMBLY magazine back in the late 1950s featured articles that discussed the topic.
Today, the concept of microgravity manufacturing or in-space production is still a few years away, but it’s much closer to fact than fiction. Several start-ups, such as Redwire Space, Space Forge Ltd. and Varda Space Industries, hope to ramp up activity over the next two years.
Space Forge is a company based in Wales that recently set up an office in the United States. It’s also in the process of building a state-of-the-art factory here that will assemble small, relaunchable satellites.
The strategic move is part of the company’s plan to strengthen its manufacturing partnerships, capitalizing on growing U.S. interest in super materials and semiconductors. Many engineers are intrigued by the optimal production environment in outer space, which is characterized by zero gravity, extreme temperatures and vacuum conditions that can new yield materials that are purer and have fewer defects.
“The appetite for in-space manufacturing of semiconductors in particular is strong and growing, fueled by commercial and defense initiatives such as the AUKUS Alliance,” says Joshua Western, CEO of Space Forge. “As we field more interest in our ability to produce super materials, production capabilities in one of the world’s largest semiconductor markets is a logical next step.”
According to Western, “the next industrial revolution isn’t on Earth.” Space Forge is pioneering the concept of microgravity-manufacturing-as-a-service with a relaunchable platform dubbed ForgeStar. The satellite features soft-descent and high-precision landing capabilities.
ForgeStar, which is approximately the size of a small refrigerator, will be deployed in orbit for up to six months. It will initially be used to produce super alloys and semiconductor substrates.
“This patented technology is more protective of payload returns than traditional ablative capsules used by competitors,” claims Western. “Both ForgeStar vehicles and payloads for U.S. customers will be manufactured in [our] new facility.”
Outer space provides an ideal environment for manufacturing certain types of products. In particular, zero-gravity holds big potential for producing next-generation alloys, biopharmaceuticals and semiconductors.
“The near-vacuum of space allows perfectly mixed and perfectly distributed substrates without any contaminants,” explains Andrew Parlock, managing director of Space Forge US. “The purity of the environment is also advantageous, because there’s very low amounts of nitrogen and oxygen.
“In addition, space offers the benefit of having optimal hot or cold temperatures,” notes Parlock, a former executive at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. “It’s possible to face the sun and get high temperatures, or turn away from the sun and get consistently cold temperatures.
“We’ve already pushed the limits of on-planet manufacturing for certain things, such as alloys,” warns Parlock. “Microgravity production will enable us to create thousands of new super alloys.
“Unique conditions allow us to access and combine a large number of elements that are not available or feasible on Earth,” says Parlock. “It is based on a factorial calculation, which means that for each new element we add, the number of possible alloys increases by the factorial of the total number of elements. Since space gives us access to many more elements than Earth, the number of new alloys we can create is exponentially higher.”
Super alloys produced in space could be beneficial in many down-to-earth applications, such as increasing the strength of bolts used to assemble wind turbine blades.
“The main limitation of wind turbine efficiency is the blade length, which is constrained by road transportation capacity,” explains Parlock. “The obvious solution is to divide the blades into sections and assemble them on-site.
“However, this connection point, where the individual blades connect to form longer and longer blades, is a point of such high stress. Today’s materials cannot manage the stresses effectively, causing the blades to break or deform,” Parlock points out.
“This is where super alloys could come in handy,” claims Parlock. “We can create alloys in space that are strong enough to withstand the stress at the connection point, allowing us to build longer and more efficient wind turbine blades.”
Space Forge’s mission statement follows a simple mantra: launch, forge, return and repeat. The first step has recently become feasible, due to the advent of commercial launch providers such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
“To achieve a true economy of scale, you have to be able to reuse your platform at a competitive price point,” says Parlock. “The current economics of small satellite fabrication, launch and return now make it feasible to do things that weren’t cost-effective in the past. The cost of launch has dropped dramatically, thanks to a group of space entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
“Initially, we’ll ride share aboard SpaceX rockets,” notes Parlock. “Low-earth orbit (93 to 1,200 miles high) currently offers the best bang for the buck. Benefits include cheap launch costs, great ride-share opportunities and relatively low levels of radiation.”
Resuable Re-Entry System
Space Forge’s first platform, dubbed ForgeStar 1A, will be in operation by early next year. However, the company plans to establish a commercially viable weekly service by the end of this decade.
To achieve that goal, ForgeStar will be equipped with soft-descent, high-precision landing capabilities that will protect sensitive payloads from damage. Space Forge engineers developed a reusable re-entry system that will enable the low cost and reliable return of satellites to Earth.
Pridwen, named for King Arthur’s mythical shield, features a heat shield that folds and unfolds using origami-inspired technology.
“Although the cost of launching satellites into space has become lower through the use of reusability, all current commercial space return vehicles use ablative heat shields which require replacement after every flight,” says Parlock.
“Pridwen uses a high-temperature alloy that is large enough to radiate the heat of re-entry away without burning the material, making it fully reusable,” adds Parlock. “This shield is much larger than the vehicle and folds to fit inside the launcher using a modified origami technique.”
Space Forge engineers spent more than four years developing the system, with funding provided by the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency. They recently conducted a successful series of trials using plasma wind tunnel testing of shield samples, high-altitude balloon drops, origami deployment tests and sea survival.
Because many space-made products will be vulnerable to the shock forces experienced during re-entry and landing, the engineers also developed a water-based hover net called Fielder. The uncrewed vehicle maneuvers itself underneath a re-entry vehicle to soften the landing and enable quick return to a port.
“We want to be an advanced materials company that uses in-space manufacturing to its advantage,” says Parlock. “Initially, we’ll be producing crystalline structures that can be used to produce semiconductor substrates. This could eventually lead to microgravity chip fabrication.”
But, before that long-time dream of science fiction writers becomes a reality, there are several big challenges that need to be addressed. One is a lack of standards related to in-space manufacturing. Another perplexing issue involves commercial air traffic control.
“Each time a launch takes places today, there’s a massive amount of disruption to air traffic,” explains Parlock. “Now, we’re talking about bringing stuff back from space on a regular basis. There’s currently no regulation that pertains to returning payloads to Earth.”