OT Interviews: Five Questions with Space Forge’s Christina MacLeod5th Nov 2022
Space Forge, a UK-based in-space manufacturing company, will soon be the first to launch a reusable satellite platform, as it hopes to leverage the space environment to address challenges on Earth. Orbital Today sat down with the company’s Business Development & Marketing Officer, Christina MacLeod, to discuss the upcoming launch and what Space Forge hope to accomplish in space.
A challenge for the company’s satellite, known as ForgeStar 1, will be its safe re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, so that it may be relaunched. Therefore, the company has been working on ForgeStar 0, a demonstration flight to test a heat shield designed to keep the satellite safe upon reentry. ForgeStar 0 will be onboard Virgin Orbit’s upcoming launch in Cornwall by the end of 2022 – which also marks the first-ever launch from UK soil.
OT: What Space Forge is doing?
CM: Basically, we are developing the world’s first returnable and re-launchable satellite platform that will be conducting in-space manufacturing operations in orbit. Our company has a really strong focus on using space for good, so we want to harness the space environment for life on Earth. We want to set a precedent.
What in-space manufacturing is, is manufacturing things in orbit. NASA is constantly launching things up to the ISS to test their next-generation materials for the space station, or for future kinds of lunar habitation, or new structures, new pharmaceuticals, new products, and things like that. But what you actually find in orbit is that materials [for use on Earth] can be made better, so anything that has really power-hungry intensive processes really benefits from the space environment. So we’re focusing on advanced materials, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors initially but this could benefit heavy machinery. That’s because the space environment with its microgravity, access to low temperatures, and high-purity vacuum makes really great products.
OT: How did the upcoming launch with Virgin Orbit come about?
CM: It’s really exciting. First of all, it was quite unexpected. At the end of last year, we were basically asked if we wanted to be part of the UK’s first-ever launch this year to which we excitedly said yes, but we knew that our ForgeStar 1, which is our in-space manufacturing platform, the first generation that’s due to go up in 2023, wouldn’t be ready in time. So we had to really brainstorm and come up with a concept that could be tested in low Earth orbit, but that wouldn’t require the effort of creating a full-scale in-space manufacturing platform. So that’s where the ForgeStar 0 came about. With that, we’re not actually doing any in-space manufacturing on it, but we’re testing our heat shield, which is one of the most critical components of the whole operation.
OT: How would the in-space manufacturing platform work?
CM: One example would be semiconductors. So essentially, if you make semiconductors on Earth, it’s quite an easy, straightforward process. The thing is, they require large heat sinks and heat pumps because they don’t have great energy regulation, just because the crystallization on Earth isn’t as great. So we found that if you make semiconductors in orbit, you have perfect crystallization, which means that they’re more energy efficient. You don’t need heat sinks and heat pumps and the semiconductors are less contaminated because of the vacuum in space. High Purity vacuum means that you don’t need these really expensive vacuum chambers on Earth to manufacture them, and also low temperatures mean that you don’t need to waste energy by cooling materials down and letting them easily settle.
We just found that there were so many benefits to so many industries and we want to create a service that gives companies access to microgravity, that wouldn’t normally be able to.
OT: How will Space Forge’s service be greener or cheaper than the alternatives?
CM: Reusability will basically drive the cost of the satellite down massively. I mean, you look at the SpaceX rockets, and they were really expensive, to begin with, and now every launch is getting cheaper and cheaper, and the cost of launch has decreased dramatically over the past couple of years. For example, if we replace every semiconductor in every UK telecoms tower, It would reduce the cost of the grid from about 720 million pounds to 400 million pounds. But you know, to all the people that are really environmentally conscious, and for all the countries that are trying to do better, this really could prove a huge turning point for industry, across the world.
OT: Outside of the technical issues, what hurdles has the company faced?
CM: I mean, right now we’re kind of struggling with the regulatory aspects. Launching satellites from the UK is quite a process that the UK is still trying to figure out and we’ve had to jump through so many hoops to even get to where we are with the Forge Star 0 launch. When it comes to returning satellites, that’s a whole different story. Because we’re basically helping write regulations to do this safely, so, detangling that and figuring it out has been very difficult.
But in the future, I think returning satellites will be quite tricky in making sure countries are aware of the benefit of Space Forge, and that we can return our vehicle anywhere on Earth. I mean, we aim to create an end-to-end UK supply chain, but I think the first few missions will be tricky for the team, making sure that we build up customer confidence in us.
We’ve had lots of people come to us and say that’s not possible, that it’s too expensive, that it’s not feasible. But, we’ve also had loads of customers say that it’s the kind of next step that we need to create next-generation materials that will really change our industry and cut down on carbon emissions. Space Forge is just pioneering the idea of marrying space and Earth together and using them in tandem and connecting the best ecosystems.
In terms of the reusability aspect, we’re developing a fleet of reusable satellites, which isn’t typically done and so we really want to make other space companies look at themselves and what they’re doing to the space environment, which is becoming more and more contested every year, and make them reconsider their practices and show that it is possible to create reusable satellites and to protect our space environment for future generations.
Orbital Today would like to thank Christina MacLeod for taking the time to talk with us about Space Forge’s work. We would also like to note that Christina MacLeod is also the founder and organizer of the Edinburgh Women in Space Conference, and we hope to speak with her on related topics in the future.