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These autonomous factories on satellites will produce materials in space that can’t be made on Earth

New supermaterials could help make wind turbines bigger, data centers more efficient, or the internet faster.

These autonomous factories on satellites will produce materials in space that can’t be made on Earth
[Image: courtesy Space Forge]

“The Earth is a terrible place to make things.” So says Andrew Bacon, an aerospace engineer and cofounder of Space Forge, a U.K.-based startup that plans to begin manufacturing certain high-performance materials in autonomous factories on returnable satellites—and help dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions back on our home planet. The company just raised a seed round of $10.2 million.

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Bacon and cofounder-CEO Joshua Western want to take advantage of the unique conditions in space—the very low gravity and the fact that it’s an almost perfect vacuum—to make materials that can’t be made on Earth. Some new materials have already been produced on the International Space Station. A new type of fiber-optic cable, for example, is cloudy when it’s made on Earth because of gravity and impurities in the air, but crystal clear when made in space.

[Image: courtesy Space Forge]
If the materials are valuable enough, making them hundreds of miles above the surface of the planet is economically feasible. “This fiber-optic cable can transmit 100 times faster data than a silica one, and that means they are worth $6 million a kilogram,” Bacon says. “When you compare it to the current price of launch [of a satellite], which is somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per kilogram, it actually starts to make economic sense.”

Space Forge cofounders Joshua Western (left) and Andrew Bacon [Photo: courtesy Space Forge]
Data centers could also use new space-made materials to become more efficient. “It’s absolutely horrifying how much energy is used just in moving data around the world,” Bacon says. “And a lot of that, you can trace it all the way back to the efficiency to what material the semiconductor is made out of.” Semiconductors are hard to make on Earth because the atmosphere can introduce impurities.

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In space, they can be made with fewer impurities and better materials that improve efficiency. “If you improve the efficiency of a semiconductor by 20%, that actually has a much bigger knock-on effect than just reducing the power budget by 20%,” Bacon explains. “It also means that I need a smaller cooling system, and I need a smaller power supply to drive that.” The whole system might cut energy use by 60%.

Certain manufacturing processes—like achieving very high or very low temperatures—are simpler in space. On Earth, the atmosphere makes it difficult to reach the high temperatures used in producing metals, for example. “Because there’s no air, effectively, in space, it’s very easy to heat something up to a really high temperature,” Bacon says. “Or if you point your satellite away from the sun and away from the Earth, you can cool down to about 10 degrees above absolute zero.” Metal alloys are easier to make, because gravity doesn’t pull metals of different weights away from each other.

In space, it’s possible to manufacture new alloys that can be used to make bigger, stronger, turbines on aircraft, so planes use less fuel. On electric planes, new materials can make the electronic connections between batteries and the propeller motor more efficient, so the planes need less cooling equipment and can carry more passengers. Space factories are also well-suited to make better batteries for electric planes or cars. Wind turbines, for example, are more efficient the larger they are, but have to be made in pieces so they can be transported to a site for installation, and then held together with bolts. By making bolts that are stronger than what can be manufactured on Earth, it’s possible to develop a larger, more efficient wind turbine that can create more energy.

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Not surprisingly, a factory on a satellite would look different from one on Earth. First, of course, there would be no humans: All the steps would be done via robotics. But the temperatures and vacuum allow for different configurations. “If you went to see an alloy-producing or a semiconductor foundry on Earth, you may see all this pumping equipment, all these massive steel chambers . . . this is actually a lot simpler,” Bacon says. “No humongous cooling systems or fans or anything. We don’t need any of it.”

The company plans to launch its first small satellites, oven-size spacecraft called ForgeStar orbital vehicles, next year to test the concept, before moving to larger satellites and larger production. One challenge will be getting the satellites and the valuable new materials back: Right now, satellites are designed to stay in space as long as possible, and when something eventually breaks, they drop into the Earth’s orbit and burn up. Reusable satellites will be designed differently—Bacon compares traditional satellites to what a car might look like if it were never possible to make repairs (perhaps two engines, six tires, and other redundancies that make the car more durable but also more expensive). Until recently, returnable satellites weren’t viable because of the high cost of launch, but that has changed as companies like Virgin Orbit and SpaceX have developed new launch systems.

Space Forge plans to be the first carbon-negative space company, tracking the emissions of everything from the design and manufacture of its satellites to launch. Rocket emissions vary depending on the approach, but any emissions can be more than offset by the benefits of the new materials, Bacon says. “When you’re looking at things like communication architecture, which can be very power hungry, and if you can reduce the amount of power that’s using by even a few percent over its lifetime, because it’s constantly running for 10 odd years, that constitutes a huge amount of CO2 savings,” he says.

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The company is keeping its technology for retrieval confidential, for now, but it involves a reusable heat shield that makes reentry simpler and less expensive. The satellites will land in the ocean, to stay away from people, and the company is developing systems that can collect them and return them to land. “It’s not easy to do, and not many companies have attempted it,” Bacon says. “But I think we’ve got a solid plan for what we’re doing.” The new round of funding will support the first launches.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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