Watch: Space Forge co-founder Joshua Western speaks to ITV Cymru Wales reporter Hamish Auskerry about the possibilities of space manufacturing.
A Welsh-start up business working to harness the unique characteristics of outer space to kick-start a new industrial revolution says it will launch its first mission into orbit next year.
Based at a lab in an industrial estate in Rumney in Cardiff, 'Space Forge' says its technology could open up a whole new world of possibilities for manufacturing.
The company is working off the basis that there are materials and objects that could fundamentally improve life on Earth, but cannot physically be made on this planet.
Co-Founder of Space Forge, Joshua Western, wants to use outer space to create everything from next generation composites and alloys to making pharmaceuticals, and even the 3D printing of organs.
These are lofty ambitions for a business that existed only in the minds of its two co-founders two years ago, after they quit their jobs at a large aerospace firm to pursue their idea of making an on-demand returnable service to space.
"Andrew, the co-founder, and I, started the business from a fold out kitchen table on the outskirts of Bristol", Joshua told me. "That's pretty much where we were at the start of the first lockdown. Now we employ 20 people from 12 countries".
Space Forge have now just been awarded a two-year contract through the European Space Agency’s Boost! Commercial Space Transportation Services Programme worth €2m (£1.7m).
The money will cover the preliminary and detailed design phases, as well as the launch, in-orbit operation and return of the first operational ForgeStar demonstration vehicle in 2022.
"We have been developing the ForgeStar platform", Joshua explained.
"It's essentially a miniature factory in space, which runs dedicated industrial processes and then at the end of its mission, it deploys a deploys a return technology that basically allows it to return from space like Mary Poppins, but instead of a chimney it's from 500km altitude.
"That allows us to return to Earth much more gently than has been done before meaning we can reuse the platform again and again".
It begs the question, is space a better place to manufacture things than Earth?
Space Forge flips that question around.
"If it wasn't for the context of human history and the industrial revolution", Joshua says, "the way that we actually make things doesn't make sense.
"The environment that make the Earth a wonderful place to live is not conducive to making things. We have gravity that weighs us down, we have a dense atmosphere that contains contaminants and generally speaking we have a relatively consistent temperature.
"To make things we have to fight against the natural environment. So we invented cryogenic freezing and furnaces to raise and lower temperature for example.
"The one thing we haven't been able to overcome without paying for it is gravity. Accessing the space environment is now cost-effective enough that we could actually move the manufacturing activities that we do on the ground, like how we make steel, and put those in the space environment to take advantage of being in a better place to make things".
Space Forge’s microgravity return vehicle, the ForgeStar Orbital Vehicle 1 (FSOV-1), is a flexible modular small satellite, roughly the size of a cooker.
The firm plans to launch larger more developed platforms into space in 2023, which will be able to undertake different manufacturing tasks.
Joshua says while we will not be seeing car chassis or wind turbine wings made in space, the technology may make it possible for specialist and more durable components of larger products to be made in orbit.
That is why Space Forge claims it is actually contributing to a green tech revolution.
The 'return technology' the firm has developed potentially means the end of tons of waste being dumped into the Pacific Ocean every time a rocket is sent to space, where satellites could be recycled or even refurbished and sent into orbit again.
"What we are developing at Space Forge is the first opportunity to use the space environment to directly solve some of the most pressing issues we have around our generation.
"The way I like to think about it is we are moving away from drawing water from the well, and instead developing the watermill of space.
"A few decades ago the technology for this did not exist. Now it does".