Remove gravity and new manufacturing possibilities are unlocked
Light a candle on earth and the flame points upwards. But in space the fire burns in all directions equally, causing a slow-burning globe of combustion. The difference is gravity, which fundamentally changes how atoms and molecules behave.
So, why not leave it behind to manufacture revolutionary materials and overcome roadblocks in a range of applications? That’s the thinking of a number of ambitious startups who have raised significant venture capital to do just that.
Varda Space Industries, a company founded in 2020 by SpaceX veteran Will Bruey and Founders Fund partner Delian Asparouhov, is one of them. It has acquired USD54 million in funding to create an automated manufacturing facility, which fits inside of a spacecraft that contains its own reentry vehicle. “We have a fundamentally unique way of manipulating chemical systems that physically cannot be done on earth, because gravity is a fundamental force,” says Bruey. “That’s the source of our value.”
Until recently, space was the domain of public agencies with big budgets. But, as the costs of manufacturing, launching, and operating satellites have fallen, thousands of private companies have launched their own space programmes in the name of scientific advancement and business opportunity. The space economy, meaning any goods and services produced in space for the benefit of humanity, grew eight percent last year to reach USD464 billion, according to Euroconsult’s Space Economy Report. The authors predict that its value will reach over USD737 billion within a decade.
One segment of this is off-planet manufacturing, which has traditionally been discussed in the context of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Varda, however, is one of several companies pursuing it because the hyper-clean, microgravity conditions of space provide a near-perfect environment for manufacturing certain specialist materials, including fibre optics and semiconductors, because it allows for fabrication with fewer impurities and defects.
This nascent industry wants to build on research carried out at the International Space Station (ISS), which has underlined the potential of off-planet manufacturing. These projects have been expensive and small-scale, because they require astronauts to actually carry out the tests. But the dual trends of falling launch costs and increasingly sophisticated robotics offer a path to accessibility. “It’s about taking what the science has proven and allowing commercial customers to scale that up,” says Asparouhov.
Initially, Varda will focus on manufacturing pharmaceuticals. Microgravity is especially useful in developing the dosage form of a drug, where the active chemical ingredient is formulated into a pill, injectable, or other product that can be safely administered to patients. Here is where constraints often arise. Medicines that would be easier to take as a pill may only be successfully delivered as an injection, for instance – and in many cases effective molecules fail to lack a viable formulation. “Even though they know it will be able to cure the disease,” says Asparouhov, “there is no way to practically bring it to market.”
Without gravity’s pull, however, you can formulate many drugs in new, more patient-compliant versions. It’s not just about the form of the drug; it’s also about dosage. Instead of taking five pills a week, you might be able to take just one. Microgravity manufacturing may also reignite the development of a whole catalog of effective but forgotten drugs whose development has stalled on earth.
In June, Varda launched its first of four demonstration missions, aiming to show that the automated hardware and chemical processes actually work. In this mission, the company's spacecraft was sent to low earth orbit on a SpaceX rideshare, before executing a process of heating and cooling. The spacecraft will be returning to Earth via parachute in July. In the future, the company’s space capsule will be sent into low earth orbit, before executing a process of heating, cooling, and mixing, and then returning to Earth.
It’s a risk-laden project and proof of concept alone would be a significant achievement. But in true Silicon Valley style, the company has a bullish vision that stretches decades ahead. Within five years, Varda hopes to have hundreds of automated manufacturing facilities orbiting Earth. Once spaceflight costs have fallen sufficiently, the company plans to turn its attention to computer chips, fibre optic cables, and semiconductors. Eventually, Varda wants to build the first manned space factory, which will orbit the earth with thousands of humans on board.
“Getting to space in old news,” Asparouhov says. “What you do when you’re out there is what counts.”