UK’s Space Forge unveils new reentry technology for space-manufactured satellites

Welsh start of manufacturing in space space forge has developed a satellite re-entry system to enable rapid recovery and reuse of its manufacturing spacecraft in space.

The new system, which includes a heat shield and a watercraft designed to soften the spacecraft’s landing, will be incorporated into the company’s manufacturing-in-space satellite platform called ForgeStar.

Unlike ablative heat shields, like those used on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which require replacement after every mission, Space Forge says it built its “Pridwen” heat shield to be large enough to radiate the heat generated by atmospheric reentry. The shield, made of a high-temperature alloy, was designed to fold inside the launcher for liftoff and unfold when the spacecraft returns to Earth.

Moving away from ablative heat shields is one way Space Forge hopes to differentiate itself from its competitors.

“It’s old technology,” explained Space Forge co-founder and CTO Andrew Bacon. “The idea of ​​ablative heat shields, something that eats itself when it comes back, is [1950s] technology.”

Image Credit: Space Forge

The company has also developed an uncrewed water vehicle, “Fielder”, which will maneuver itself under the ForgeStar and “catch” it in a soft landing. The idea is to reduce the stress on sensitive payloads inside the vehicle as much as possible, while also reducing the need for spacecraft refit.

Space Forge is one of the few companies vying to be among the first to tap the potentially astronomical market for materials made in space. The five-year-old startup has ambitious plans to enable the manufacturing of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, certain alloys, and more. While astronauts on the International Space Station have shown that these materials can be made in orbit, they have yet to be made at scale and returned to Earth.

Image Credit: Space Forge

“The space station is a great laboratory, but it’s not a factory,” Bacon said. Manufacturing in space is also not as simple as turning a Dragon capsule, the most widely used cargo and crew vehicle in history, into an orbital factory. The capsule is simply not optimized for that, in terms of cost or engineering, he explained.

“SpaceX has done a fantastic job of reducing the cost of launch, but it hasn’t really reduced the cost of return,” he said.

In addition to cost, Dragon’s reentry mechanic could pose issues for some materials, such as live biocultures. “We have spoken with biological customers who have lost their three-year-old experiments in development within the last millisecond of landing” due to the high impact of the landing, Bacon explained.

The company says it is on track to launch its maiden mission this year. That mission, which will not carry any customer payloads, will demonstrate the Space Forge fabrication technique and test other key technologies, including safe re-entry technology. While Bacon declined to specify a potential launch date or launch provider, he did say that the company chose a US launch provider with a proven flight history.

The company first attempted to launch a spacecraft on Virgin Orbit’s January mission from Cornwall, UK, but that payload, and everything else, was lost when Virgin’s launcher experienced an anomaly and was unable to reach orbit.

Space Forge closed a seed round of $10.2 million in 2021, co-led by US companies SpaceFund and Type One Ventures, and Berlin-based World Fund. Space.VC, Starbridge Venture Capital, Quiet Capital, Kencoa Aerospace, Trousdale Ventures, Newable Ventures, Dylan Taylor and FJ Labs also participated.

As for the company’s next round of financing? “Expect an announcement soon,” Bacon said.


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