Inside Varda Space’s plans to revolutionize in-space manufacturing

The idea of manufacturing commodities in space is not a novel concept. The International Space… The post Inside Varda Space’s plans to revolutionize in-space manufacturing appeared first on

Inside Varda Space’s plans to revolutionize in-space manufacturing

The idea of manufacturing commodities in space is not a novel concept. The International Space Station — humanity’s hub for research and development in microgravity — has hosted several research payloads which have produced Optic Fibers and even 3D printed STEM cells. These may have the potential of printing entire human organs in space, saving countless lives.

This technology utilizes the microgravity environment to produce commodities that cannot be made on Earth. Now, a California-based in-space manufacturing company named Varda Space is looking to transition this technology from research to production.

Varda Space is looking to increase access to manufacturing in space, as it provides an environment with characteristics unavailable on Earth. They hope to accomplish this onboard free-flying satellite platforms in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), using in-house technologies and equipment.

“Our technology that we have been working on has been demonstrated in the International Space Station by a variety of researchers. We’re just helping to commercially transition that research from the ISS to our independent satellite platform,” said Delian Asparouhov, Co-Founder and President of Varda, during an interview with

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore holds the first object 3D printed in space, aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

Varda has raised over $53 Million since its inception ten months ago. Of this, $42 million was raised in the Series A round, co-led by venture capital firms Khosla Ventures (primary backers of Rocket Lab), and Caffeinated Capital (primary backers of Boom Aerospace), among others. The other $11 million was raised in a prior seed round.

Asparouhov said that the in-space factories will produce “high-value market products such as fiber optics cables, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors,” although declined to say exactly what will be produced in the initial missions. All of the materials mentioned have been shown to have significantly higher performance and better properties when manufactured in microgravity.

Varda’s Space Factory will consist of three modules – one of them being Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft. In August, the company announced that it had signed a deal with Rocket Lab to procure three Photon spacecraft to support their in-space factories.

Photon will provide communications, power, and attitude control to Varda’s two internally-developed modules – the Manufacturing and Re-entry Modules. As their names suggest, these modules will manufacture the commodities and bring them safely down to Earth, respectively. Together weighing just around 120 kilograms, all three modules will be integrated on the ground and launch together on a rideshare mission.

The second Photon satellite, “Pathstone”, being integrated into the fairing ahead of the “They Go Up So Fast” Electron mission in March 2021. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab will deliver the first Photon Spacecraft for Varda in the first quarter of 2023, with the second spacecraft expected in late 2023 and the third in 2024. There’s also an option for Varda to procure a fourth Photon spacecraft in the future.

“The Varda team is undertaking ground-breaking work that really opens up new possibilities and markets for in-space manufacturing and we couldn’t be more excited to make their mission possible with Photon,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck.

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  • “Photon enables our customers to unlock the full potential of space. It removes a massive barrier to the growing small satellite market by delivering our customers a versatile and configurable spacecraft platform that they don’t need to build themselves. Our customers get to orbit faster and can focus purely on their mission while there, rather than worrying about developing and operating a spacecraft.”

    “We are excited to work with Rocket Lab. Photon is a great fit for our mission and their team has displayed significant engineering rigor. Working with them will allow us to deliver on our aggressive schedule and tight budget. We are one step closer to delivering valuable materials to our clients here on Earth,” said Will Bruey, CEO and Co-Founder of Varda Space.

    When asked about the progress made on the hardware, Asparouhov said, “Our chief scientist has sent several of these modules up to the International Space Station before, so this hardware has not only been built before but also has flown and tested in the ISS.”

    “This is definitely not just a theoretical plan, this is real hardware,” he added.

    The module which Asparouhov is referring to is Physical Optics Corporation’s Orbital Fiber Optic Production Module which was launched to the ISS onboard SpaceX’s 17th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-17) Mission in 2019.

    The aim of the experiment was to try to produce cleaner fibers in the microgravity environment. Since optic fibers are used for applications like data and power transmission, defects in the fiber can lead to loss of data or power. Therefore, having cleaner fibers leads to smoother operations.

    ZBLAN produced in microgravity (left) and ZBLAN produced in normal gravity (right). Image Credit: NASA

    The experiment produced ZBLAN, an optic fiber made of fluoride salts of Zirconium (Zr), Barium (Ba), Lanthanum (La), and Sodium (Na) (hence the name). When produced on Earth, it is prone to defects that occur during the solidification of the optic fibers. This happens due to the non-uniform distribution of the various chemical components within the fiber and leads to the formation of micro-crystals.

    Although this happens for any silicon dioxide-based optic fiber, the effect in ZBLAN is more pronounced due to zirconium, barium, and lanthanum being denser than aluminum and sodium, causing the boundary layers to appear in the microstructure of a material.

    Research on the ISS has shown the microgravity minimizes this effect, making it possible for ZBLAN to be used in numerous commercial applications due to significantly reduced optical loss. Estimates from the study by the ISS National Lab have shown that 2,000 kilometers of ZBLAN could have the same optical loss as 10 kilometers of silica fiber, the most used optic fiber. This amounts to over 20 times better performance due to lower defect rates.

    Once the product is manufactured, it has to land back on Earth safely – and that’s the objective of the re-entry module. The company aims to return over 100 kilograms of manufactured cargo to Earth.

    “[SpaceX’s Crew] Dragon is sort of a gold-plated Limo designed to keep humans very comfortable, [whereas] we’re sort of building the delivery van for space. It’ll be much cheaper and can handle much more Gs,” said Asparouhov.

    Photon’s 3D printed Curie engine will place Varda’s re-entry capsule on a return trajectory to Earth. The capsule re-enters the atmosphere over the United States and will touch down using parachutes on land instead of the ocean to keep the costs down. This also means the manufacturing modules, at least for the first couple of missions, will be single-use.

    Rocket Lab’s Kick Stage – the basis of the Photon satellite bus – with the small Curie engine visible in the center. Credit: Rocket Lab

    “For the first few missions, we are developing what we call it as Disposable Space Factories. The Photon and the factory will burn up but the materials will survive. That’s just to keep the technology as simple as possible.”

    The company plans to develop rendezvous and docking capability as soon as the business scales up.

    “The future is showing that we can send the materials and the factory up to the space for 1 million dollars and we can make a million and one dollars of profit. [T]he moment that happens, we [will] turn around like SpaceX and start producing these factories every single day and make them larger and larger, where initially, rather than having something the size of the Photon, we have something the size of a school bus, and eventually something the size of the ISS, or even ten times the ISS.”

    (Lead photo credit: Rocket Lab)

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    IXPE nearing shipment to Florida for December 2021 launch

    The launch of the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) observatory is now targeting December 13,… The post IXPE nearing shipment to Florida for December 2021 launch appeared first on

    IXPE nearing shipment to Florida for December 2021 launch

    The launch of the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) observatory is now targeting December 13, 2021, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The IXPE X-Ray observatory is the latest spacecraft in NASA’s historic Small Explorers (SMEX) program. 

    The IXPE mission was first selected as a part of the Explorers program in January 2017. NASA awarded the IXPE team $188 million for the spacecraft and mission, including the cost of the launch vehicle, post-launch operations, and data analysis. The spacecraft will be used to study Black Holes and other cosmic X-ray mysteries. 

    Built by Ball Aerospace at facilities in Boulder, Colorado, the IXPE spacecraft is based on the Ball Configurable Platform (BCP)-100 satellite bus. The BCP-100 is one of Ball Aerospace’s offerings for a modular satellite bus for low-Earth orbit (LEO) operations. It was most recently used by NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) to test a new type of Green propellant for space operations. 

    IXPE is not the only space observatory Ball Aerospace has built. Ball built the Kepler space telescope, instruments for the Hubble and Spitzer space telescope. Ball also made the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), now named Near-Earth Orbit (NEO)WISE, which is also a part of the Explorers program. 

    Using the BCP-100 satellite bus, IXPE will weigh a total of ~325kg. When launched, the spacecraft will be 1.1 meters in diameter and 5.2 meters tall when the spacecraft is fully extended. The solar array will be 2.7 meters when fully deployed. IXPE will have a two-year primary mission while in orbit. 

    The IXPE spacecraft is separated into two different parts. The first is the main spacecraft with the solar array, attitude control, and communication systems. The second part is attached with a deployable payload boom with its X-Ray shield and main Mirror Module Support Structure (MMSS) deck.

    Artist impression of the IXPE spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

    The MMSS will consist of three separate mirror-based telescopes, all with a focal length of four meters. The focal length will be achieved by the deployable boom. The telescopes will focus X-rays seen from space onto a polarization-sensitive imaging detector developed in Italy. The telescopes will have a 2-8 keV range, an 11-arcminute field of view, and ≤30-arcsecond angular resolution. IXPE’s detectors will be two orders of magnitude more sensitive than those on the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO)-8 mission.

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  • Using these three telescopes, IXPE will study X-ray Polarization. X-Ray Polarization is a specific area of X-Ray astronomy that allows scientists to study matter distribution, the spin of black holes, and more. IXPE is the first of its kind to study polarized X-Rays from extreme objects like neutron stars, stellar and supermassive black holes. 

    IXPE completed its Critical Design Review (CDR) in July 2019. From there, the spacecraft underwent construction and assembly. In September 2020, the Mirror Module Assembly (MMA) was delivered to Ball Aerospace in Boulder. A month later, the MMA was installed on the MMSS deck. In December 2020, the extendable boom arm underwent a deployment test. 

    By the end of January 2021, the spacecraft was completed and began environmental testing. In August 2021, IXPE completed a 21-day thermal vacuum test with its boom extended. By the end of August, the arm was stowed and was back in its cleanroom. 

    Next up for IXPE is the completion of all of its pre-launch testing. Soon it will be delivered from Ball’s facilities in Boulder to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its launch.

    IXPE is currently set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9, likely from historic Launch Complex 39A. In 2019 NASA awarded SpaceX $50.3 million to launch IXPE. IXPE was originally designed to be launched on an air-launched Northrop Grumman Pegasus-XL launch vehicle, but SpaceX ended up winning the contract to launch IXPE.

    Falcon 9 (B1059-5) launching from LC-39A with the NROL-108 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

    Originally targeting May 2021, it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic to late-2021. The launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than (NET) on December 13, 2021.  

    The Falcon 9 will launch IXPE in a circular 590km orbit by 0.2 degrees inclination. Also, given IXPE’s size and weight, it may conduct a Return-To-Launch Site (RTLS) landing at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Landing Zone-1. Once separated from the Falcon 9, it will extend its solar array and payload boom to begin its mission.

    Explorers Program

    IXPE is the latest in a very long list of satellites in the Explorers program. The Explorers program started in the 1950s as a US Army program to launch the first artificial satellite to orbit. The first US satellite, Explorer-1, was launched via a Juno-1 rocket in January 1958, before the program was taken over by NASA when it was founded in October 1958. 

    Over time the program evolved to what it is today. The program is now separated into three main different classes and one minor class. There is a Medium-Class Explorers (MIDEX), the SMEX (which IXPE is a part of), the University-Class Explorers (UNEX), and Mission of Opportunity (MO).

    List of active MIDEX/SEMX satellites Type of Class Launch Vehicle Launch Date Time in operation
    Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) Delta II 7920-8 Aug 25, 1997 ~24 years, 1 month
    Swift Observatory MIDEX-3 Delta II 7320-10C Nov 20, 2004 ~16 years, 9 months
    Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) MIDEX-5 Delta II 7925-10C Feb 17, 2007 ~14 years, 7 months
    Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) SMEX-9 Pegasus-XL F38 April 25, 2007 ~14 years, 5 months
    Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) SMEX-10 Pegasus XL F40 Oct 19, 2008 ~12 years, 11 months
    WISE/NEOWISE MIDEX-6 Delta II 7320-10 Dec 14, 2009 ~11 years, 9 months
    NuSTAR SMEX-11 Pegasus XL F41 June 13, 2012 ~9 years, 3 months
    Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) SMEX-12 Pegasus-XL F42 June 28, 2013 ~8 years, 3 months
    Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) MIDEX-7 Falcon 9 (B1045-1) April 18, 2018 ~3 years, 5 months
    Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) MIDEX-8 Pegasus XL F44 Oct 11, 2019 ~1 year, 11 months

    Some of the active MO missions include the Two Wide-Angle Imaging Neutral-Atom Astrometers (TWINS), which is a pair of instruments on the USA-184 (NROL-22) and the USA-200 (NROL-28) missions. Another mission is the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) X-Ray telescope which was launched on the SpaceX CRS-11 mission to the International Space Station. The most recent mission to fly is the Global-scale Observation of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission currently onboard the Airbus-built SES-14 spacecraft.

    The ACE spacecraft, which has currently been in operation for about 24 years, is one of the longest operating NASA missions ever. ACE is currently being used to study particles and magnetic fields in space. Today, along with NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft, it is currently being used to observe space weather and be used as early detection for solar activity.  ACE will remain in operation until 2024, when it will run out of fuel. 

    THEMIS is a mission comprised of five spacecraft, of which three are in highly-elliptical Earth orbit and two in a Lunar orbit. The two in Lunar orbit were renamed ARTEMIS P1 and P2. THEMIS and ARTEMIS are both working in tangent with each other and other spacecraft to help study the Sun and its effect on the Earth’s magnetosphere. Their mission will continue until all spacecraft run out of fuel.

    THEMIS in pre-launch testing. (Credit: NASA)

    NEOWISE is currently in a Sun-synchronous orbit on a mission to detect Near-Earth objects. In July 2021, its mission was extended until June 2023. A future spacecraft, NEO Surveyor, will replace NEOWISE when it launches in 2026. It is currently in Phase B of program development.

    The Explorers program allows opportunities for heliophysics and astrophysics science areas. The program still has several more missions coming up for future missions. The next SMEX missions following IXPE are the Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) and the Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS) missions. Both will launch together on an unassigned launch vehicle in October 2023. The two are currently in Phase B and are undergoing design and technology completion.

    In 2024, several more Explorer missions will launch, including the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ice Explorer (SPHEREx), as well as the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment (SunRISE) mission. SPHEREx is currently in Phase C, which means it is now in Final Design and Fabrication; it will launch in September 2024 on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

    SunRISE just entered Phase B of its development in September 2021. The six spacecraft will launch onboard a Maxar-built satellite to geostationary orbit, currently planned for some time between April 2024 and September 2025. 

    (Lead image credit: NASA)

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