Manufacturing in Space for Earth-Bound Products
On a small plot of blue clay soil in France are grown grapes that produce one of the finest wines known to man – Petrus. While cult wine movie Sideways painted a bad picture of merlots, nobody puts Petrus in the corner. It’s a merlot whose berries are picked one at a time, consistently commanding a base price of at least $4,600 per bottle when released. Buyer beware though, because it also happens to be the most counterfeited wine in the world.
If turning water into wine is tough, turning water into gold is a lot more difficult. For that you’d need a rocket, a space station, and some serious contacts. A company called Space Cargo Unlimited sent a case (12 bottles) of 2000 Petrus to sit in orbit for about 14 months. Upon its return, it looks to be fetching around a million a bottle, though even the experts couldn’t decide if it actually tasted any different. If some time in space can add value to Petrus, what else can it improve?
Microgravity vs. Zero Gravity
The term “zero gravity” is misleading. There’s actually gravity everywhere in space, according to an article by NASA that sets things straight. The correct term is “microgravity,” a condition of relative near weightlessness that can only be achieved on Earth by putting an object in a state of free fall. Consequently, it’s been something we can only do for short periods of time – as long as a jet plane can maintain parabolic flight which is about 30 seconds.
If you ever want to experience microgravity on a budget, just travel to the Juri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center north of Moscow and ride “the vomit comet,” a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 that will take you up for a few rounds of 30-second weightlessness in exchange for around $6,616. (For $69,706 they’ll let you charter the entire plane.) While that might make the most epic stag do ever, it’s not conducive for manufacturing in microgravity. Which brings us to the big question everyone’s probably asking. Why would we want to manufacture in microgravity in the first place?
Why Manufacturing in Space?
The need to manufacture things in space that will be consumed in space is an obvious need for space exploration. The first use of additive manufacturing in space took place seven years ago, and it’s technologies like 3D printing that the space industry is counting on to reduce space transportation costs. If we’re going to explore deep space, every astronaut will need to know how to use a 3D printer. Throw in some robotic manufacturing, and we might even be able to create large structures or even an entire spacecraft in space. Producing parts in space for use on a space mission is one type of space manufacturing. The other type involves manufacturing things in space and sending them back to earth.
In a microgravity environment, things start behaving very differently. For example, high-performance ZBLAN optical fiber strands can be created without any impurities, resulting in orders of magnitude performance improvements. In a microgravity environment, crystals can be produced that are perfectly uniform in size, something that’s relevant for applications such as drug delivery or semiconductors. The best applications for manufacturing in space probably haven’t even been thought up yet. The question is, what materials would be most economically viable to produce in space today?
We need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sure, creating metal alloys in space can result in superior properties, but how much will it cost to get all that metal up there and back? Yes, we know all about asteroid mining, but right now scientists are barely able to land on asteroids, much less mine them. One hint at what the first use case might be lies in the types of experiments being conducted in microgravity today, on the International Space Station (ISS), in the cramped quarters of the Destiny Module.
Until now, almost all in-space manufacturing research has been carried out on the ISS. Of that, about a third has been the work of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. That’s according to an excellent article by The Scientist, Pharma Looks to Outer Space to Boost Drug R&D, which talks about how such research has been happening since the 1990s, even before the ISS was operational. That’s when a researcher at Merck figured out that near weightlessness can affect protein crystallization. Research has continued to this day, and at least one company thinks they may be close to a product.
Founded in 2009, Connecticut’s own LambdaVision has taken in $5.5 million in disclosed funding to develop the first protein-based artificial retina. The secret sauce is bacteriorhodopsin, a light-activated protein that acts as a proton pump. It’s one layer of a multi-layered artificial retina that needs to be constructed just right to work.
For the artificial retina to function, molecular structures must be precisely oriented within each layer. The company’s founder spent the last 40 years studying bacteriorhodopsin, and he believes that a microgravity environment may be just what the doctor ordered. NASA seems to think so as well, having given LambdaVision a $5 million grant last year to fund the research. Once the concept has been proven, LamdaVision will need a manufacturing technology that can churn out artificial retinas at scale, in a cost-effective manner. One company that might be able to help is Varda Space Industries.
About Varda Space Industries
Founded in 2020, San Francisco’s own Varda Space Industries has taken in $51 million in funding with the majority coming from a $42 million Series A led by Khosla Ventures which closed just last month. Khosla seems to have the Midas Touch when it comes to space investments. Their $28 million investment in Rocket Lab (RKLB) is now worth a cool $1.7 billion. A month ago, Rocket Lab and Varda Space Industries inked a deal where the former will supply the latter with three Photon spacecraft that will house space factories.
“In simple terms, we are the real estate and the utilities for the space factory,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC. Varda plans to launch its first space factory in Q1-2023 aboard a Photon spacecraft (but not flying on a Rocket Lab rocket interestingly enough). Three months after launch, they’ll return a batch of product to Earth – about 100 pounds of whatever it is they’re manufacturing. Varda plans to launch another spacecraft in late 2023, then another in 2024 with the option to purchase a fourth. The company remains tight-lipped about what they’ll be working on, simply mentioning it will be in “high-value markets such as fiber optic cables, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors.”
In the process of researching this piece, we came across a number of companies working on commercial space manufacturing. Perhaps some have launched equipment to the ISS to test things, or performed some experiments in microgravity here on earth. There’s only so much room on the ISS, and that’s the only space station we’re aware of. That means companies will need to come up with a method of manufacturing that can scale, similar to what Varda Space Industries is doing. We might end up with a multi-level value chain that looks something like this:
- Launch vehicle – (i.e. SpaceX)
- Real estate and utilities – (i.e. Rocket Lab)
- Space factories – (i.e. Varda Space Industries)
- Product developers – (i.e. LambdaVision)
That is unless the 500-pound space gorilla whose name shall not be mentioned decides to vertically integrate these tiers and add “space manufacturing conglomerate” to their ever-increasing list of accomplishments. Until that happens, we’re interested in learning about companies with proper venture capital backing that have committed to a timeframe when their first earth-bound materials will be produced using factories in space. If your sacred cow fits that bill, please drop us a comment below.
As the per-pound cost of launching stuff into space becomes cheaper, the more use cases open up for manufacturing earth-bound products in space. The first company to consistently produce products at scale at an economically viable price point will prove that at least one business case exists, and more will likely follow. If the Varda Space Industries effort proves to be successful, the blue ocean total addressable market will surely attract some sharks.
PS: The one on the left is the real bottle of Petrus. The one on the right, a fake.
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