UK ‘space factory’ launching to create BILLIONS of materials never seen on Earth

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The groundbreaking idea is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Joshua Western and Andrew Bacon, who secured £600,000 of Government-backed investment this week after founding their company – Space Forge – from a garage in South West England two years ago. Its vision – to harness the power of the cosmos by manufacturing high-performance materials impossible to produce on Earth, helping to decrease energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. By escaping the high gravity we see on Earth, the company’s reusable satellites will be able to create billions of new alloys that were previously out of reach for humans, helping to provide the electronics industry with more efficient – and sustainable – products.

Speaking to exclusively, Mr Western said: “All we are doing is taking simple manufacturing processes and we are exposing them to the space environment.

“On Earth, when you manufacture anything, the three main things you have to contend with are temperature, pressure and gravity.

“Obviously, gravity affects everything we do, but it’s surprising the amount of impact it has on manufacturing.

“All we are doing is taking simple manufacturing processes like alloying and we are exposing them to the space environment.”

Mr Western, who has half a decade of experience in the space industry, explained why his idea will unlock these new possibilities.

He added: “Obviously, gravity affects everything we do, but it’s surprising the amount of impact it has on manufacturing.

“By moving those processes to space, you overcome the barrier of gravity, because there is much less of it in space and you can then access a better environment for pressure – because of the vacuum – so you don’t need loads of pumping equipment.

“We can also access a much wider temperature variation because we don’t have an atmosphere to contend with.”

Mr Western revealed how his satellites – which will orbit in variable two-week to six-month cycles before returning to Earth to be reused – will be able to do all of the production work in space.

He added: “So if we need it really hot, we can point it at the Sun, if we need it cold, we point away from the Sun, by doing that we create better materials.

“If you think of an alloy – when you’re trying to mix aluminium and lead, they have very different properties, so on Earth when you try to create aluminium and lead alloy, you have to put it in a centrifuge and spin it up really fast to get it to mix evenly.

“But it’s not perfect, so what you get is a fairly good alloy, but you get really strong spots and really weak spots, where the material hasn’t formed properly because of gravity.

“If you take this same process and you do it in space you don’t have those problems because you don’t have gravity to contend with, so we’re doing that with all sorts of materials.

“Our key focus is next-generation electronics, by producing these in space and bringing them back, we can more than double the efficiency and reduce the Co2 emissions as well.”

Mr Western went on to speculate over what Britons can expect to see coming back to Earth in the next few years.

He said: “Lots of the things we will be making are the type of materials you’ve seen before and used all of the time, but you can create an evolution of them by doing this process in space.

“But at the same time, by moving to space you unlock a billion combinations of materials that aren’t possible to make on Earth because of gravity – not all of them useful – but for the first time ever we will be able to explore them, which could unlock all kinds of new technologies.

“We’re producing the whole factory and that sits inside a satellite which goes up into space on a rocket and then does the process between two weeks and six months, then deploys return technology and comes back down.

“We then separate the factory from the satellite and tune it up so we can use it again, it’s all operated remotely from humans on the ground and then in space, we run it from mission control.”

Space Forge’s satellites will be sent more than 400km into outer space, above the International Space Station, so the company can harness the cleanest of environments.

Mr Western explained: “We will be going above the International Space Station because the environment is not contaminated.

“Because it’s so old it leaks quite a bit now and that means it’s not the best environment for producing these materials – we need them really clean.

“We’re producing materials that are so much more efficient than the ones you can make on the ground, think of it as a computer chip – if you have one that’s inefficient – you can plug ours in and immensely reduce power consumption for the same level of performance.

“It’s reducing the inefficiency that’s in electronics, you can suddenly create components that don’t need as much power to run them.”

The company says it is hoping to launch its first satellite next year – but the coronavirus pandemic may delay the process by one year.

By the end of the decade, Space Forge could have a whole neighbourhood of factories in orbit routinely returning to Earth.

Mr Western said: “We’re targeting our first launch towards the end of next year, with the current situation it’s more likely to be 2022 because we can’t move people freely at the moment.

“What we’re doing by 2026 is being able to launch one satellite a month, so by 2027 we would have anywhere between six and 12 satellites in space routinely returning to Earth so we can create the benefits.

“By the end of the decade, we’re looking at a weekly launch, getting to 50 satellites in orbit at any one time creating these materials.

“Some of our later satellites will have the capability to make numerous materials, but we’re looking to make one material and lots of it to scale-up production and meet the demands of any sector that needs electronics.

“And at the same time, we’re talking to universities and research institutions about providing our satellites for their experiments to find new materials and new production methods for the other markets.”

This week, the organisation secured £600,000 of funding package from the Development Bank of Wales, alongside Bristol Private Equity Club and Innovate UK – a Government-backed scheme.

This funding will help the company continue developing their reusable manufacturing satellite while ramping up their capability in Newport and Bristol.

Space Forge’s plan is to recruit 10 new team members across South West England to develop the satellite project to a test launch position.

The company will be working with European and international partners, but is focussed on doing as much as possible in the UK to reduce its carbon footprint.

Mr Western also hopes the company can continue to work with the Government in future.

He added: “We’ve got Innovate UK funding, that’s £100,000 of the £600,000 and that’s for the development of our capture solutions.

“We’re looking to work with the Government in future as well.

“This technology could be used on other satellites, so rather than letting it burn up in the atmosphere and waste all the technology and raw materials, for the first time ever with our technology you’ll be able to fully return a satellite.

“It’s important to say we can do most of this from the UK as well, we’re working with partners from Cornwall to the tip of Scotland to make it a reality.

“There is a huge core of competence here in the UK, which to be honest very few countries have – we have the operation, the rockets, the satellite production companies and very soon we will have the launch site.”

Callum Hoare – – 22.05.20


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