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In-space manufacturing could help humanity fight climate change, startup says

Space Forge plans to launch its first in-orbit manufacturing demonstrator from Cornwall, the UK, with Virgin Orbit.
Space Forge plans to launch its first in-orbit manufacturing demonstrator from Cornwall, the UK, with Virgin Orbit. (Image credit: Space Forge)

An in-orbit manufacturing startup that plans to launch its first demonstration mission this year believes that space factories could help humanity slash greenhouse gas emissions and thwart climate change

Space Forge, based in Wales, is set to launch its returnable and reusable ForgeStar in-orbit manufacturing experiment this summer with Virgin Orbit from the UK's new spaceport in Cornwall, in what is expected to be the first-ever orbital launch from British soil.

Speaking at the "Towards a Space Enabled Net Zero Earth" conference in London this week, the company's CEO and co-founder, Josh Western, said that in-space manufacturing could contribute to a greener and more sustainable future in multiple ways, in spite of the carbon footprint of rocket launches. 

"Earth is an incredible place to live, but it's a terrible place to build," Western said during his presentation. "That is because we have to fundamentally compete against pretty much all of Earth's natural base instincts and forces in order to build pretty much everything."

Related: Making stuff in space: off-Earth manufacturing is just getting started

Space, Western said, naturally provides an environment that enables high-tech manufacturing without complex, power-hungry equipment.

"Space provides a much, much better manufacturing baseline for almost any material," Western said. "Going into space enables about a billion new alloy combinations through a combination of microgravity, high-purity vacuum (without the need for multistage pumps), and accessing extremes of temperature of plus to minus 260 degrees Celsius [plus 500 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 436 degrees Fahrenheit] just depending on which way your platform is orientated."

That by itself, Western said, decreases the energy consumption of in-space manufacturing compared to facilities on Earth. The products manufactured in space, he said, could offer further carbon savings through their improved efficiency and performance. 

"The applications that we're focused on at Space Forge are really in the advanced material sphere," Western said. "And that allows us to develop new types of semiconductors, new types of composites that can leapfrog the state of the art about 100 times in terms of performance through improvements in thermal capacity and power handling."

That advantage, Western said, could reduce the energy bills of the technologies relying on those semi-conductors and composite materials by up to 60%.

As examples, Western named 5G mobile telecommunication infrastructure and lighter, less power hungry jet engines made of more durable, lightweight materials. 

"Our objective is to be truly the world's first carbon negative space company," Western said. "My ambition is that for every kilogram of carbon dioxide we create at Space Forge, we prevent 15 tonnes from ever entering the atmosphere."

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.