Manufacturing in space may sound like science fiction, but it is already happening, albeit on a very small scale. It’s a nascent market that analysts and several startups predict will take off.
“If you look at pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, beauty and health products, and potentially food products as new products, we estimate that the market will be over $10 billion at some point in 2030, depending on the rate of maturity,” said Ilan Rozenkopf. , is a partner at McKinsey.
Space offers a unique environment for research and development because its high levels of radiation, microgravity, and near-vacuum conditions allow companies to develop new manufacturing methods or materials that are not possible on Earth.
The practice is not entirely new. The International Space Station has hosted a number of experiments by academics, government agencies, and commercial clients, such as growing human tissue, producing cleaner semiconductors, and developing new or better drugs. In the 2024 fiscal year budget, President Joe Biden even allocated $5 million to NASA for cancer research on the ISS.
But access to the ISS has always been competitive, and interest continues to grow. Now, several space startups see an opportunity to meet the demand for manufacturing in space using compact space factories. One company is Varda Space Industries in Southern California. Varda’s mission is to help pharmaceutical companies use the unique properties of space to improve their drugs or develop new drug treatments and then return those materials to Earth.
Varda Space Industries’ first pharmaceutical manufacturing satellite and re-entry vehicle attached to the Rocket Lab Photon bus.
Key to Varda’s business proposition is a phenomenon known as protein crystallization.
This occurs when supersaturated protein solutions are evaporated to form a solid so that scientists can study the protein’s structure. Understanding the protein’s crystal structure can help scientists gain better insight into disease mechanisms, identify drug targets, and optimize drug design. Consider drugs that have fewer side effects, are more effective, or can withstand more conditions without the need for refrigeration.
Years of research have shown that protein crystals grown in space are of much higher quality than those grown on Earth. The plan is not to make the entire drug in space, but only the main active pharmaceutical ingredient or the part responsible for the drug’s therapeutic effect.
“Given that the amount of crystal you need to create is beyond our current capabilities, you won’t see us making penicillin or ibuprofen or any of those very generic mass consumer targets,” said Delian Asparouhov, co-founder and president. Varda Space Industries. “But there’s a broad set of drugs that generate billions and billions of dollars a year that actively match the scale of production that we can do even in our current manufacturing facility.”
Asparouhov, hundreds and millions of doses in the US in 2021 and 2022 Pfizer The Covid vaccine was introduced, “the actual total quantity of the actual crystalline mRNA consumable main pharmaceutical ingredient was effectively less than two gallon jugs of milk.”
Across the Atlantic in Cardiff, Wales, Space Forge is working on designing its own space-based factory to produce a new generation of semiconductors. Space Forge’s goal is to make semiconductor substrates using materials other than silicon to produce more efficient, high-performance chips.
“These next-generation materials will allow us to create efficiencies we haven’t seen before,” said Andrew Parlock, managing director of Space Forge’s US operations.. “We’re talking about a 10-100X improvement in semiconductor performance.”
Image of Space Forge’s ForgeStar production satellite.
As in pharmaceuticals, the secret to achieving such performance improvements in semiconductors lies in creating perfect crystals in space. These types of advanced chips are essential for industries such as 5G and electric cars. Like Varda, Space Forge plans to manufacture only a fraction of its chips in space.
“Once we create these crystals in space, we can bring them back to Earth, and we can effectively replicate this growth on Earth,” said Josh West, CEO and co-founder of Space Forge. “So we don’t need to go into countless spaces to scale well enough to operate on the ground with our FAB partners and customers.”
Watch the video to learn more about space manufacturing, as well as Varda and Space Forge’s plans to turn the experience into a viable business.