Rocket Lab, one of the very first companies to fully exploit the benefits of AM in rocket engine manufacturing, signed a deal with in space manufacturing company Varda Space Industries. According to the terms of the agreement, Rocket Lab will produce three Photon spacecraft that will integrate with Varda’s space factories, enabling high-value products to be manufactured in zero-gravity and returned to Earth in Varda’s re-entry capsule.
Varda’s space-manufactured products are targeted at high-value markets such as fiber optic cables, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors — all of which have higher performance when produced in zero-gravity. After launch, Rocket Lab’s Photon will position the spacecraft in an operational orbit and provide station keeping. Photon will support Varda’s 120 kg manufacturing and re-entry modules with power, data, and attitude control. All three Photon spacecraft will also incorporate Rocket Lab-designed and built spacecraft components, including radios, reaction wheels and star trackers. Rocket Lab’s Photon will perform multiple burns with the 3D printed Curie engine, acting as a highly capable propulsion system to place Varda’s re-entry capsule on a return trajectory to Earth.
Traditionally, almost all in-space manufacturing research has been carried out on the International Space Station. This research has demonstrated that innovative materials and products can be created in the consistent microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit, an environment that can’t be replicated on Earth. Until now, manufacturing in orbit has been impossible to scale due to cost. Building a space factory with a proven, Photon spacecraft — one that doesn’t require human tending in orbit — will allow Varda to make building products in space at scale a reality for the first time.
“The Varda team is undertaking ground-breaking work that really opens up new possibilities and markets for in-space manufacturing and we couldn’t be more excited to make their mission possible with Photon,” said Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Peter Beck. “Photon enables our customers to unlock the full potential of space. It removes a massive barrier to the growing small satellite market by delivering our customers a versatile and configurable spacecraft platform that they don’t need to build themselves. Our customers get to orbit faster and can focus purely on their mission while there, rather than worrying about developing and operating a spacecraft.”
Based in Torrance, California, Varda Space Industries was founded by Will Bruey, who spent almost a decade working on SpaceX’s Crew and Cargo Dragon spacecraft, and Delian Asparouhov, a Principal at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. “We are excited to work with Rocket Lab. Photon is a great fit for our mission and their team has displayed significant engineering rigor. Working with them will allow us to deliver on our aggressive schedule and tight budget. We are one step closer to delivering valuable materials to our clients here on Earth,” said Varda Space Industries Chief Executive Officer, Will Bruey.
The first Varda Photon is planned for delivery in Q1 2023, with the second to follow up later in the year and a third in 2024. The contract, which is subject to standard termination provisions, also includes an option for Varda to procure a fourth Photon. Each mission has a nominal three-month duration from launch to landing.
The Varda contract joins a growing list of Photon missions, including the CAPSTONE lunar mission in support of NASA’s Artemis program and a recently announced contract to design twin Photon spacecraft in support of a NASA Mars mission. Rocket Lab currently operates two existing Photon spacecraft on orbit. Launched in 2020 and 2021 respectively, the Photon First Light and Photon Pathstone spacecraft demonstrated Rocket Lab’s end-to-end mission service, encompassing satellite design and build, launch on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, and on-orbit operations.