What if your next factory was in space?

At the end of February, a capsule from the Californian firm Varda Space Industries landed in Utah after eight months in orbit. On board: crystals of the antiviral Ritonavir manufactured in orbit.

Varda’s capsule marks a new stage in the exploitation of space. The possibility of using weightlessness to manufacture new materials has been considered for more than half a century. But until now, no company had a specific standalone platform for this new industry.

“As long as the costs of accessing space were high, there could only be testing of manufacturing materials in zero gravity,” explains Eric Lasker, Varda’s chief financial officer, in a telephone interview. “But with SpaceX, the costs fell by a factor of 100. We thought we could do the same thing for the costs associated with returning the samples to Earth and have a business proposition that held up. »

At the moment, it costs US$3,000 to bring a kilogram into orbit, and US$50,000 to bring a kilogram from space back to earth, according to Mr. Lasker.

Varda, which was launched in 2020, also counts former SpaceX employees among its founders. Two or three more launches are planned this year. In orbit, the one-meter diameter capsule is linked to a factory satellite. It can store between 40 and 50 kg of materials.

The first target market is pharmaceutical. “Drugs can be very expensive, so it’s worth it for a pharmaceutical company to pay to benefit from the different conditions of crystallization and solubility, among other things, in orbit,” says Lasker. A priori, for a very expensive drug, mass production could be done on our capsules in orbit. »

The other advantage of Varda, compared to other companies manufacturing materials in orbit (Redwire and Nanoracks in particular), is that the latter must wait until there is space in cargo ships until the International Space Station (ISS). “It takes between 12 and 18 months to get to the ISS,” says Mr. Lasker. We aim to have half the wait time, perhaps even less if we can get frequent landing clearances. » The return of Varda’s first capsule was delayed by obtaining authorization from the American Aerospace Authorities (FAA), to the point that a landing in Australia was even considered.

The financial calculus for a space manufacturing experiment on the ISS is a little different from the simple costs of launching hardware into orbit, because the cost per kilogram of a cargo ship mission approaches US$25,000, according to NASA contracts.

Private space stations

Mr. Lasker is also not afraid of competition from private space stations planned for 2030, notably from the Texan firm Axiom, which has already sent three astronaut missions to the ISS. “Cargo ships are generally the same platforms as manned capsules. Their cost per kilogram is higher due to the higher level of security of manned missions and the costs of life support systems. »

Isn’t there an advantage to having humans do the manipulations, particularly at the research and development stage? “In some cases, but we also have to have special procedures for toxic materials,” says Mr. Lasker.

But Eric Kulu, an Estonian aerospace engineer who manages a database on materials manufacturing in orbit and another on nanosatellites, is less sure. “If we can reuse the material manufacturing instruments each time, because they are in a space station, that reduces costs,” says Mr. Kulu.

The first experiment in making materials in orbit – making silver crystals – was carried out in 1973 on the US space station Skylab. Launch damage limited Skylab’s life to six months, but promises from the space industry gave rise to biannual space manufacturing conferences at Princeton University in 1975, which continued until 2001.

Mr. Kulu’s database lists more than a hundred experiments in manufacturing materials in space since 2018. More than twenty companies have been created in this field over the past fifteen years. NASA, meanwhile, has documented 3,000 materials manufacturing experiments on the ISS since 2001. Pharmaceutical companies have even included ISS experiments in drug approval applications, according to a 2022 article by Chemical & Engineering News.

Watch Varda’s capsule descend

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  • 53 million US
    Venture capital invested in Varda

    Source: Varda Space Industries

reference: www.lapresse.ca

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