In-space manufacturing may sound like science fiction nevertheless it’s happening already, albeit on a really small scale. It’s a fledgling market that analysts and a number of other startups are projecting will take off.
“If you have a look at pharma, semiconductors, health and beauty products and potentially food within the sense of like recent crops, we estimated the market to be above $10 billion sooner or later in 2030, depending on the speed of maturation,” said Ilan Rozenkopf, a partner at McKinsey.
Space offers a novel environment for research and development because its higher levels of radiation, microgravity and near vacuumless state allows firms to provide you with recent manufacturing methods or materials that should not possible on Earth.
The practice shouldn’t be entirely recent. The International Space Station has hosted several experiments from academics, government agencies and business customers for things akin to growing human tissue, making purer semiconductors and developing recent or higher drugs. In the 2024 fiscal-year budget, President Joe Biden even put aside $5 million for NASA to pursue cancer-related research on the ISS.
But access to the ISS has all the time been competitive and interest continues to grow. Now, several space startups see a chance to satisfy in-space manufacturing demand using compact space factories. One company is Varda Space Industries in Southern California. Varda’s mission is to assist pharmaceutical firms improve their drugs or provide you with recent drug therapies by profiting from the unique properties of space, after which return those materials back to Earth.
Varda Space Industries’ first pharmaceutical manufacturing satellite and reentry vehicle attached to a Rocket Lab Photon bus.
Key to Varda’s business proposition is a phenomenon often known as protein crystallization.
This occurs when super-saturated protein solutions are essentially evaporated to form a solid so scientists can study a protein’s structure. Understanding the crystal structure of a protein may help scientists get a greater idea of disease mechanisms, discover drug targets and optimize drug design. Think drugs which have less unwanted effects, are simpler or can withstand a greater array of conditions akin to not needing to be refrigerated.
Years of research have shown that protein crystals grown in space are much higher quality than those grown on Earth. The plan shouldn’t be to make the whole drug in outer space, just what’s often known as the first lively pharmaceutical ingredient, or the portion answerable for the therapeutic effects of a drug.
“You’re not going to see us making penicillin or ibuprofen or these kinds of very generic mass consumption targets, given the quantity of crystalline you have to create is much beyond our current capabilities,” said Delian Asparouhov, co-founder and president of Varda Space Industries. “But there’s a large set of medicine that do billions and billions of dollars a 12 months of revenue that actively fit inside the manufacturing size that we are able to do even on our current manufacturing facility.”
Asparouhov said that within the U.S. in 2021 and 2022, of the a whole bunch and hundreds of thousands of doses of the Pfizer Covid vaccine administered, “the actual total amount of consumable primary pharmaceutical ingredient of the particular crystalline mRNA, it effectively was lower than two milk gallon jugs.”
Across the Atlantic in Cardiff, Wales, Space Forge is working on designing its own in-space factory to fabricate next-generation semiconductors. Space Forge’s goal is to make semiconductor substrates using materials apart from silicon to fabricate more efficient, higher performing chips.
“This next generation of materials goes to permit us to create an efficiency that we have never seen before,” said Andrew Parlock, managing director of Space Forge’s U.S. operations. “We’re talking about 10 to 100 X improvement in semiconductor performance.”
A rendering of Space Forge’s ForgeStar manufacturing satellite.
Just like with pharmaceuticals, the key sauce to achieving the sort of performance improvement in semiconductors lies in creating the right crystals in space. These varieties of advanced chips are necessary for industries akin to 5G and electric vehicles. Similar to Varda, Space Forge plans to fabricate only a part of the chips in space.
“Once we have created these crystals in space, we are able to bring them back all the way down to the bottom and we are able to effectively replicate that growth on Earth,” said Josh Western, CEO and co-founder of Space Forge. “So we needn’t go to space countless times to accumulate pretty good scale operating with our FAB partners and customers on the bottom.”
To learn more about in-space manufacturing in addition to Varda and Space Forge’s plans to make the practice a viable business, watch the video.