Sometime later this summer, the first ever fully Welsh-built satellite will take off aboard the first ever commercial launch from UK soil. Once in orbit, ForgeStar-0 will begin validation of its in-space manufacturing capability, technology that has the potential to disrupt everything from pharmaceuticals to semiconductors by harnessing the unique space environment. It’s a remarkable journey for a company still in its infancy.
“We’ve been working on the technology for about five years...but it’s only in the last two years that we’ve really gone for it,” Andrew Bacon, co-founder and chief designer at Space Forge, told The Engineer at the company’s Cardiff HQ.
Space Forge was actually incorporated in 2018, while both Bacon and co-founder/CEO Josh Western were still working at Thales Alenia Space across the Severn in Bristol. The pair had planned to quit their jobs in March 2020, just as the world was hit by the first devastating waves of Covid. Delayed but undeterred, Space Forge has made enormous strides in the intervening two years, evolving from a bare-bones startup operating out of a garage to a team of around 35 working in an industrial facility with its own recently commissioned clean room. In December 2021, the company secured £7.6m in seed funding, making it one of the fastest growing space startups in the world.
This summer’s launch – date still TBC at time of writing – will see Space Forge hitch a ride onboard Virgin Orbit’s inaugural UK flight, taking off from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport. In what is set to be the UK’s first satellite launch in history, Virgin’s modified 747 Cosmic Girl will take off horizontally from Cornwall before the LauncherOne rocket is released from the aircraft’s left wing at an altitude of around 10km, taking ForgeStar-0 and several other cubesat payloads into space.
“It’ll be taking multiple satellites, but we’re the only Welsh one, and that’s why we’re saying it’s Wales’s first satellite,” Bacon explained. “Obviously Welsh universities, academics and industry have contributed to satellites, but there’s never been one purely built in Wales before.”
This first launch will act as a pathfinder for Space Forge, a demonstrator mission to road-test elements of both its orbital manufacturing technology and the re-entry systems needed to bring future lucrative space booty back to Earth. As such, ForgeStar-0 is a stripped back version of what the company plans to deliver in the future and is not designed to return to Earth intact.
“There’s specific elements of our re-entry technology that we’ll be de-risking,” said Bacon. “ForgeStar-0 is going to be testing elements of our re-entry technology, but it’s not going to be surviving re-entry. It doesn’t have an engine on it, so you can’t control precisely where it’s going to land, and so therefore it would be very irresponsible to design it to survive.”
Its successor, ForgeStar-1, is due to fly in 2023. That spacecraft will be four times the size of this summer’s debutant and is planned to successfully re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and land safely off the UK coast. ForgeStar-2 will be even bigger again. Set to launch in 2024/2025, this is slated to be Space Forge’s first commercial launch, where the value of the material manufactured in space exceeds the cost of placing the satellite into orbit. Using a fleet of reusable ForgeStar satellites, the medium to long term plan is to launch dozens of flights per year.
“We want to be building 10-12 of those a year, and that means after five years it’s over 100 flights a year,” said Bacon. “So there’s a lot of work to.”
Returning this number of satellites safely to Earth brings its own issues, however. Cubesats are generally not designed to survive re-entry and even tracking them as they descend can be inordinately tricky. We tend to have a good idea what’s happening in the atmosphere up to around 40km and from around 400km upwards. In between – what Bacon refers to as the ignore-o-sphere – is too high for balloons or aircraft to reach, and too low for satellites to operate in, making it something of a black box that we only gain knowledge of when travelling through it.
When Space Forge first approached the problem, Bacon and Western assumed there would be some off-the-shelf software that could help it overcome this re-entry conundrum. After discovering there wasn’t, the company set about developing its own, known as Aether. The cloud-based platform will be continuously refined as Space Forge completes more and more missions, each re-entry adding to a growing bank of knowledge that will make recovering its fleet of ForgeStars safer, easier and cheaper.
“You want to land in the sea because the UK doesn’t have any handy deserts,” Bacon explained. “But we have got a lot of sea and coastline, some of which is not really being used, doesn’t have aircraft flying through it, doesn’t have fishing activity or oil rigs, anything like that.”
As Aether evolves as a tool, it will not only benefit Space Forge, but will also be offered as a service to other space operators to help track their own re-entries, something that is likely to become increasingly common as the space industry seeks to move towards more reusability. Just how reusable the ForgeStar platform itself is, remains to be seen. Though the maiden flight will not return to Earth, data from it will be used to refine the design of its successors. This will hopefully lead to an increasingly robust spacecraft that can complete multiple manufacturing mission on orbit, helping reduce the company’s environmental footprint.
While it wasn’t necessarily planned as such, Space Forge’s emergence has also coincided with a serendipitous boom in UK launch capability. Alongside Cornwall, plans for a further six spaceports around the UK are in place, including multiple Scottish sites as well as one in Snowdonia, north Wales. Local launch access is definitely welcomed – not least for the green credentials - but not something that Space Forge will be relying on exclusively given the volume of missions it has in its sights.
“When you’re doing 100 launches a year, logistics really start to become the big issue,” said Bacon. “We’re trying to be launch agnostic - whoever’s got the price or the best schedule for us, and that will be a mix. In the space industry you never want to be reliant on a single launcher, as OneWeb found out with the Soyuz (a scrapped mission with stranded satellites resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).
“But we’re also trying to become a carbon negative company...so I’m sure we’ll be flying out of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, wherever.”
The Welsh connection, on top of being part of the UK’s first ever satellite launch, has helped bring a certain amount of media attention Space Forge’s way. However, flags and headlines don’t usually induce investors to part with £7.6m to back a largely unproven technology. Given the cost of launch and return, it’s not surprising to hear that in-space manufacturing promises to be an extremely lucrative endeavour. The orbital environment of microgravity, vacuum and controllable temperature extremes should enable the creation of small quantities of super high-value materials, many of which simply cannot be produced on Earth for a variety of reasons.
“When we started this, we assumed the biggest draw would be the microgravity, because it’s really hard to replicate on Earth,” said Bacon. “But the more we talked to universities and big companies, we started to realise how advantageous having a permanent vacuum is.”
High-value metal alloys are one example the co-founder gives that could benefit hugely from the combination of factors space provides. On Earth, the mass of different metals makes for imperfect mixing. Oxygen in the atmosphere also leads to oxidation at high temperatures, which can make alloys brittle. And achieving ultra-high temperatures on Earth – for say, melting tungsten – requires creating special conditions that minimise the heat-stripping properties of the terrestrial atmosphere.
“In space, because of the microgravity, you don’t have a problem with the mixing,” said Bacon. “You don’t have any issue with oxidation (because of vacuum). And it’s much easier to make a very high temperature furnace in space, because you can literally just heat up an electrode in free space, and it will get hotter and hotter and hotter. You don’t have to worry about the atmosphere stealing your heat away.”
Another key area that Space Forge is targeting is semiconductors. Although many of us don’t realise it, the microchips that underpin modern electronics are crystal lattices that are pulled from vats of molten silicon. Defects in the crystal structures affect performance, becoming magnified as electronics shrink ever smaller. The space environment offers an opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of silicon crystals.
“You can get away with it if your transistor is huge, you can kind of get away with a few small defects,” said Bacon. “But to move to a higher density electronics world, we need better crystals.
“A big, big part of our energy efficiency, all around in everything we do, you can trace all the way back to the semiconductor...so better material, more efficient semiconductors, which means more efficient electronics. And then the more efficient you make the semiconductor, the less cooling you need.”
The exact gains that stand to be made from higher quality semiconductor crystals will depend on individual applications, according to Bacon. As a ballpark figure, however, he says he expects space-made silicon to half the energy losses exhibited by its terra firma sibling. In a global industry worth in excess of half a trillion dollars – and one which is bumping up against the physical limits of what is possible on Earth – the prospect of such a leap forward is enormously enticing and potentially hugely profitable, even when accounting for the cost of launch.
“If you’re buying space on the Falcon 9 it’s about $5,000 per kilogram at the moment,” said Bacon. “If you bought a whole Falcon Heavy it’s $1,000 per kilogram. Starlink, who knows how low it will go? And you’ve got other vehicles as well. And you think, how many things are worth a lot more than $1,000 per kilogram?”
As well as semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, Bacon mentions the nickel-based superalloys used in aircraft engines, which exceed $50,000 per kg. According to the design chief, ForgeStar will also open up the possibility of producing materials that scientists and academics have known or hypothesised about, but simply haven’t been able to create on Earth, even in laboratories.
“There are a lot of other different types and combinations of materials that people know have really amazing properties,” he said. “They just can’t make it. It’s amazing the number of academics you go and talk to who have been trying to synthesise certain materials for 20 years.”
Space stations like Skylab and the ISS have served as proving grounds for some of the manufacturing concepts that Space Forge is hoping to capitalise on. However, inhabited space environments are obviously not ideal for producing many things, whether due to the extreme temperatures involved, the toxic nature of some elements, or the possibility of contamination. Manufacturing on an uncrewed spacecraft overcomes these problems. It’s less a case of the sky’s the limit, more that the skies are limitless.
“I like to think of us not so much as a space company, but as an advanced materials company,” said Bacon. “I mean, if you can suddenly alloy anything with anything in the periodic table...that’s a very, very big number of new things that you could create.
“I was expecting a lot more scepticism about it than we’ve received. A lot of companies are thinking hey, should I be researching this? But at the moment they’re only thinking research, they’re not thinking production, and that’s what we’re trying to change.”