Using space to construct metals and materials
Space isn’t just useful for observing our planet, or the billions of stars in our universe. It could also hold the key to the next big breakthrough in materials construction. That’s the thinking behind the Welsh-based company SpaceForge.
Will - SpaceForge were one of the satellite companies whose progress was marred by the anomalous failure at SpacePort Cornwall at the beginning of January. However, they remain undeterred. Their mission is to use the space above our heads as the site of, as they put it, the next industrial revolution. They're planning foundries in space to forge new alloys and make products for use here on Earth. But why? I spoke to co-founder of Space Forge, Andrew Bacon.
Andrew - I mean manufacturing in orbit is an old idea. Ever since the Apollo astronauts made coffee on the way to the moon, we've been trying to make things in space. But like all good ideas in space, it was kind of thought of way back in the 60s, trialed in the 80s and 90s but it's only now that it's possible to commercialize it.
Will - And what sort of materials would benefit from being made up in space?
Andrew - So anything that's crystalline has a massive advantage of being made in space. Crystalline materials include alloys, semiconductors, but also proteins and in some cases even vaccines. So why is this? So in space there's two main things that are affecting crystal growth - Contamination, so crystals are generally very sensitive, particularly semiconductors, but alloys as well are very sensitive to contamination. So if oxygen gets into the environment when you're trying to make new material, it's going to try and oxidize that material, which can make it quite brittle. In space, there's barely any oxygen at all. It's what we consider an ultra vacuum, which is something that's very hard to create on earth, but in space it's there for free. You just open a door or open a valve. But the big one is microgravity. So what microgravity does is it removes buoyancy. So generally when you're trying to grow crystals, you are usually mixing two materials together. And if you think in terms of an alloy, so if you have a very dense metal like lead and you mix it with a less dense metal like aluminium, what's going to happen on earth? The buoyancy is gonna push the aluminium to the top, it's gonna push the lead to the bottom. In space there is no buoyancy. They're going to mix together and just be held together due to surface tension and mix much more thoroughly. So you end up with a very homogenous material. In SpaceForge, we're developing uncrewed manufacturing satellites that are dedicated to one process at a time. They go to a much higher orbit than the space station because the atmosphere is much thinner. And yeah, they'll be controlled from the ground. Most of the time it'll be like a furnace that you switch on and as long as it's got the right temperature, it's fine. You leave it and it will have some level of intelligence to shut itself down if something unexpected happens. But other than that, yeah there'll be control from the ground. There'll be a little bit of robotics maybe for moving materials around and this is the most efficient and most cost effective way of doing it.
Will - As I'm sure you're aware of the whole SpacePort Cornwall incident, unfortunately they didn't quite make it up there. How would your satellites and probes make it to space?
Andrew - The key thing about launch is people tend to focus on the cost of launch. So the dominant cost is mainly in the satellite. So when you're looking at launch, it really does make sense to make your satellite compatible with as many different launch vehicles as you can. Because if you put all your eggs in one basket and just concentrate on one launcher and that launcher has a problem, it's not like cars where if there's a crash on the car, they don't take all those cars off the road, find out what went wrong. Whereas with a rocket, if it has a failure that rocket stops flying for you know, 6 to 12 months. Being compatible with as many different launch vehicles as you can is usually the best way to go. You've gotta look at what your options are and make sure you're compatible with them.
Will - Whenever we talk about things orbiting our planet, inevitably the subject of space junk comes up. Obviously we want to minimize the amount of stuff we have floating around the planet at any one time. So with that comes the question of the circular economy. How does that fit into satellites? Is there a renewable element to the things that you are putting up into space?
Andrew - Satellites are really expensive and the reason why is because generally you design a satellite to last 5, 10, 20 years in orbit with no maintenance. We don't go up there and fix it. So that means we tend to put a lot of redundancy and do a lot of testing and that makes them expensive. Now imagine a different way of approaching satellites where we could bring them back if it had a failure or it was getting old or it needed to be upgraded or we wanted to maybe move it into a different orbit, but we didn't have enough fuel. If we could bring them back to earth and we could repair them or scrap them, but use the parts that still work, that would be a very different looking space industry. But it's something that hasn't really happened to date. But ultimately for the space industry to really grow, we have to get into a new way of working, which is the bringing back of satellites intact becoming the norm. Once you are able to do that space, debris basically goes away as a problem. And then you also then you're building a whole additional economy around the refurbishment, repair and relaunch of satellites, which is something that doesn't currently exist. But I can see satellite repair being a job in the future.
Will - Making new materials in space sounds like a promising direction. But surely the elephant in the room is how do you get the raw materials up there and the manufactured materials back down here to earth? The raw materials get launched inside the satellite and the process internally and SpaceForge’s idea of getting the satellite and the finished product back down is by using quote, their proprietary reusable reentry technology. If you want to know what that consists of, SpaceForge are currently being vague about how this will work in practice, for the moment. But with the subject of the circular economy comes the subject of the environment. So would the continuous launching of satellites and the carbon emission that would entail have a detrimental impact on the planet?
Andrew - At SpaceForge we want to be a carbon negative space company. How is that possible when you think of a space company? How could that not be anything other than polluting? But what we're doing is we're using the space environment to make new super materials that are stronger and able to work more efficiently at higher temperatures. Being able to increase the efficiency of electronics and boost sort of next generation control systems and communication systems. We don't have to be making huge turbine blades in space. What we need to be doing is making things like stronger bolts so that the green tech industry on the Earth can use that to make more efficient wind turbines. And so then you think about the value of that bolt that has enabled a bigger, more efficient wind turbine, which means that you're getting more out of your renewable energy.
Will - Do you see this scaling out to be a multinational worldwide thing? And realistically, what timescale could we expect?
Andrew - So we're confident this is the next industrial revolution. In space manufacturing for earth, or as we like to call it, space to earth manufacturing, probably in the next 10 years, will probably be the biggest space market. Bigger than earth observation, bigger than communications combined. I can completely foresee a future where pretty much everything we need in what will be a very advanced economy can be made in space and we can leave Earth for living, not building. In the next five years. We expect you to be interacting with something in your daily life that has a space made component in it. Now it's probably not going to be in your mobile phone, but it might be in the electric train that you are traveling in ,cell tower that you're communicating with, the data center that you're interacting with, or maybe even the grid that you are getting your power from.
Will - So, the alloys of the future could well come from above our heads with space forge paving the way. And whilst they're playing their technological hand pretty close to their chest, it's not hard to be drawn in by their optimism and confidence. So, watch this space.