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Out of this world: A Welsh startup is preparing to send what equates to a miniature factory to space where it'll take advantage of the unique environment to manufacture components that are impossible to make here on Earth.
We've made do with traditional manufacturing up to this point but as Space Forge co-founder Josh Western notes, Earth is a pretty bad place to create things. The planet's dense atmosphere, consistent temperatures and gravity can be detrimental to the manufacturing process, but those concerns don't exist in space.
"Say you're making an aluminum alloy," said Andrew Bacon, another of the company's co-founders. "On Earth if you're mixing the metals together they will separate into two layers with the heavy lead below and the aluminum at the top. But in microgravity you don't have that problem and you can actually mix them together properly."
When manufacturing in space, you also don't have to worry about contamination from the air like oxygen creating an oxide. "The unique conditions make space a far better place for making things than here on Earth," Bacon added.
The ForgeStar, as the platform is called, is about the size of a small oven. Once in orbit, it'll circle the Earth for up to six months as its internal robotic systems manufacture lightweight alloys and super-efficient semiconductors. When the work is done, the satellite will return home with its payload before being refurbished and relaunched with a new set of raw materials on board.
It sounds like an expensive endeavor but according to Bacon, it's far more affordable to send stuff to space than it used to be. "Typically it used to cost $20,000 per kilogram. These days you can get as low as $1,000," he said.
ForgeStar will begin its journey to space in September. It'll be strapped to a rocket alongside other satellites and flown aboard Virgin Orbit's jet Cosmic Girl. Once it reaches 35,000 feet, the pilot will drop the rocket which will then ignite and send the payload towards the cosmos.