Welsh space manufacturing startup Space Forge has developed a satellite re-entry system to enable rapid recovery and reuse of its spacecraft manufactured spacecraft.
The new system, which includes a heat shield and a watercraft designed to mitigate the spacecraft’s landing, will be integrated into the company’s in-space manufacturing satellite platform called ForgeStar.
Unlike ablative heat shields such as those used in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which must be replaced after each mission, Space Forge says its Pridwen heat shield is built to be large enough to withstand the effects of re-entry into radiate heat generated by the atmosphere. Constructed from a high-temperature alloy, the shield was designed to fold inside the launch vehicle during liftoff and unfold when the spacecraft returns to Earth.
Moving away from ablative heat shields is one way Space Forge is looking to differentiate itself from its competitors.
“It’s old technology,” said Andrew Bacon, Space Forge’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “The idea of ablative heat shields, something that eats itself up on its return, is it.” [1950s] Technology.”
The company has also developed an unmanned watercraft called “Fielder” that maneuvers under ForgeStar and “catches” it on a soft landing. The idea is to reduce the stress on sensitive payloads inside the vehicle as much as possible while reducing the need for spacecraft refurbishments.
Space Forge is one of the few companies vying to be among the first to tap into the potentially astronomical market for space-made materials. The five-year-old startup has ambitious plans to enable the manufacture of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, certain alloys and more. While astronauts on the International Space Station have proven that these materials can be made in orbit, they have yet to be made on a large scale — and brought back to Earth.
“The space station is a great laboratory, but it’s not a factory,” Bacon said. Even manufacturing in space isn’t as simple as converting a Dragon capsule, history’s most-used cargo and crew vehicle, into an orbital factory. The capsule is simply not optimized for this – neither from a cost nor from a technical point of view, he explained.
“SpaceX has done a fantastic job of reducing launch costs, but they haven’t really reduced return shipping costs,” he said.
In addition to the cost, the mechanics of dragon reentry could pose problems for some materials, such as living biological cultures. “We spoke to biological customers who lost their three-year development experiments in the last millisecond of landing,” Bacon explained, reflecting on the severe shock of the landing.
The company says it’s on track to launch its first mission this year. This mission, which will not carry customer payloads, will demonstrate Space Forge’s manufacturing technology and test other key technologies, including safe re-entry technology. While Bacon declined to name the possible launch date or launch provider, he said the company chose a US launch provider with proven flight experience.
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 launch vehicle experienced an anomaly and failed to reach orbit.
Space Forge completed a $10.2 million seed round 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 attended.
As for the company’s next round of funding? “Expect an announcement soon,” Bacon said.