In a historic moment for the U.K. space industry, a satellite developed in Wales will be blasted into space for the first time ever, carried aboard Long Beach-based Virgin Orbit’s Launcher-One, the firms announced this week.
Slated for this summer, the launch will carry European in-space manufacturing tech start-up Space Forge’s new small-class vehicle, the ForgeStar. The platform is the first step in the development of a world-first service for the manufacturing of next-generation supermaterials in space.
The launch is part of a broader U.K.-U.S. mission to open the country’s first domestic space port. The mission will be the first out of Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, Cornwall.
“We’re thrilled to be making U.K. history with our first launch,” Space Forge CEO Joshua Western said in the announcement. “We will demonstrate the use of space for good through in-space manufacturing and reliable return and it’s brilliant that both Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall share our ambitions.”
Earth is not ideal for manufacturing certain materials, Western told The Guardian in December, due to gravity, the dense atmosphere and impacts on the environment. In space, however, gravity would not interfere with the mixing of materials and the vacuum of space would eliminate contamination during the manufacturing process.
Optical fiber manufacturing experiments conducted by NASA almost 25 years ago, for example, demonstrated that a zero-gravity environment produced ZBLAN (zirconium, barium, lanthanum, aluminum, and sodium) fibers with fewer defects and impurities. During the experiment, the fiber manufactured on Earth showed surface defects that would scatter and degrade optical signals.
Ultimately, the goal is that the ForgeStar’s automated robotic system will direct the manufacturing and testing of alloys, pharmaceuticals and electronic components while the satellite orbits Earth for one to six months. At the end of the production cycle, the satellite would then return to Earth where the materials and products could be retrieved.
Additionally, research shows that manufacturing certain materials in space could reduce carbon emissions by 75%, according to the announcement, which is the equivalent of removing all gas-powered cars from the U.K.
“Space Forge is joining the growing community of space innovators advancing space technologies for the betterment of our world,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in the announcement. “Their commitment to sustainability builds a foundation for future growth in the industry that we at Virgin Orbit are proud to be part of.”