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SpaceForge Might Just Revolutionise The Space Industry
Reuseable Satellites are nearly a reality
SpaceX has revolutionised the space industry with its reusable rockets. They have slashed the cost to get to orbit, enabled a vast increase in launches, and in turn, kicked started a new era of space expansion. Well, SpaceFroge is planning to do the same, but with satellites. Their Pridwen heat shield and Fielder catching vessel will enable small CubeSats to safely de-orbit to Earth. The plan is to use this technology to unlock zero-gravity space-based manufacturing that promises to revolutionise pharmaceuticals, electronics and advanced material science. But how?
You may have never heard of space manufacturing, but it is one of the most promising technologies of this new space era. You see, in orbit, there is practically no gravity (or at least, a satellite feels no gravity), there is access to a near-perfect vacuum, and temperatures can be extreme, from near absolute zero to baking hot. While these conditions aren’t hostile to life, they are perfect for unique and power manufacturing processes.
The lack of gravity means that liquids don’t cause buoyancy. This is ideal for alloy mixing, as lighter metals properly mix with heavier metals and form cohesive crystals. This means alloy metal objects made in a zero-gravity environment are of a far higher quality than those made on Earth’s surface. The vacuum also helps here, as it ensures impurities and contamination aren’t present within the material. Meanwhile, the ability to change temperatures rapidly, thanks to the unique conditions of outer space, can also help to accurately heat treat this alloy, either annealing or quenching. This can help the metals be more robust or malleable while being fault free.
But space manufacturing isn’t just limited to metals; it can also be used to produce some unique pharmaceutical products. In fact, NASA has been developing medical space manufacturing for years. This is because the contamination-free environment is ideal for making high-grade medicines and biological products, and the zero-gravity environment helps compounds like unique proteins form that would struggle to form under Earth’s gravity. NASA has worked with labs to produce protein-based artificial retinas onboard the ISS. This technology can, in theory, be used to make a plethora of complex artificial organs for transplant.
The final incredible application for space manufacturing is electronics. The zero gravity, contamination-free and vacuumed environment allows unique fibre optic and chip manufacturing processes to take place. Again, NASA has already pioneered these techniques onboard the ISS, testing a small-scale fibre optics manufacturing process.
While all of these technologies are potentially groundbreaking, enabling some genuinely mind-bending medicine and technology to emerge, there is a small problem of cost. How do you make space manufacturing accessible and affordable?
SpaceForge’s solution is the ForegStar platform. This resolves around a small CubeSat satellite that can deploy onboard commercial rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, autonomously operate in orbit, manufacturing the parts required, and then safely return to Earth. This way, costs are minimised, turnaround time can be significantly reduced, and this technology can develop rapidly.
The only piece of this platform missing was some method of reentry. How on Earth do you deorbit and safely land a tiny satellite? Enter SpaceForge’s latest innovation, Pridwen. Named after King Arthur’s legendary shield, Pridwen is a fully reusable, foldable giant heat shield. Let me explain.
Satellites in Low Earth Orbit have a velocity of 4.8 miles per second, which is equivalent to Mach 22! This is why unprotected satellites re-entering the atmosphere burn up; the atmosphere’s friction at these speeds superheats the satellite, turning it into vapour. So, any satellite or spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere that wants to stay in one piece uses a heat shield. These cone-shaped shields insulate the satellite from the superheated air as they re-enter and provide enough aerodynamic drag to slow them down sufficiently for parachutes to be deployed.
The only problem is, ForgeStar satellites are too small to package parachutes with them, and these heat shields are large, cumbersome and ablative (meaning they are single-use), making them using this old-school heat shield impractical for SpaceForge.
Which is why they created Pridwen. It is an oversized heat shield, which allows it to be made of much thinner material, as it has a great area to disperse heat and provide enough aerodynamic resistance so that StarForge won’t need a parachute. As Pridwen is made of a thinner material, it can be folded down into a tiny package, making it a lot less cumbersome. Finally, a massive benefit of being oversized is that Pridwen is fully reusable; again, because it can disperse heat over a larger area, it can survive multiple reentries.
To ensure a super soft landing, SpaceForge has also created the Fielder, a hover net catch vehicle similar to SpaceX’s fairing catcher ship. According to SpaceForge, this “uncrewed high agility water vehicle which manoeuvres itself underneath a re-entry vehicle to soften the landing and enable quick return to a port.”
Pridwen is also far from a concept. It has already undergone multiple drop tests as high as 17 km and practised terminal velocity catches with Fielder. So, it won’t be long before we see this incredible piece of technology come to life.
Not only does Pridwen potentially unlock the space manufacturing industry, which will save lives, but it could also help revolutionise the burgeoning private satellite constellation industry, such as Starlink. These constellations rely on having a vast number of satellites in orbit at once. Still, these satellites don’t last long, only a few years, before they need to be retired from damage or outdated technology. But if they could be fitted with a Pridwen-style heat shield and safely re-entered, then they could be reconditioned, updated and relaunched. As each one of these satellites can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, this could dramatically reduce the costs of maintaining a constellation.
Now, SpaceForege hasn’t stated they have any plans to offer Pridwen technology to anyone else, but surely, it makes sense to do so, as just like SpaceX’s reusable rockets, reusable satellites could cut the cost of space infrastructure dramatically! But even if they don’t do this, SpaceForge’s technology is revolutionary. The tech and pharma industries have been begging for space manufacturing for years, as it holds the key to some incredible technologies and medicines that are lightyears ahead of what we currently have. I guess what I’m saying is, watch this space because SpaceForge could be spectacular!