Artist's rendering of Space Forge's ForgeStar satellite Credit: Space Forge

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Benchmark Space Systems announced plans May 24 to produce engines in the United Kingdom and to work with U.K. startup Space Forge to develop reusable chemical propulsion systems.

Space Forge of Cardiff, Wales, intends to produce high-value materials in orbit to bring to Earth. Under the contract announced May 24, Benchmark will provide propulsion for ForgeStar-1, Space Forge’s first in-space manufacturing and return demonstration.

With the help of Benchmark thrusters, Space Forge will bring back SpaceForge-1 to a precise location on Earth, eliminating the expense and greenhouse gas production associated with transporting materials from distant recovery sites, said Andrew Bacon, chief technology officer and co-founder of Space Forge based in Cardiff, Wales. “The most important way to make sure your landing is safe is to do a precision deorbit and that requires a pretty significant engine burn continuously,” Bacon said.

Space Forge will serve as the anchor customer for Benchmark’s first U.K. manufacturing and testing facility at the Satellite Applications Catapult at Westcott Venture Park in Aylesbury, England.

“We’re working towards securing the development of the first test units in the next two or three months,” Arthur said. “Then, we’re pushing to deliver the first flight propulsion unit for integration at the end of this year.”

Burlington, Vermont-based Benchmark has reported strong demand for its thrusters since proving its Halcyon high-test peroxide (HTP) monopropellant propulsion system last year on an undisclosed government satellite mission.

The Satellite Applications Catapult “gives us access both to an ecosystem of test infrastructure for testing propulsion systems and also an ecosystem that has other suppliers and partners that we can work with on HTP propulsion systems as well,” said Mark Arthur, director of Benchmark’s European operations.

Sam Adlen, Satellite Applications Catapult chief strategy officer, said in a statement, “We’re delighted that Benchmark will develop their innovative propulsion systems at the Westcott Innovation Centre, and that we will be able to support their growth through our range of facilities and expertise.”

Satellites with HTP propulsion will be easier to collect from the ocean or just before they hit the water than spacecraft with hydrazine fuel, Arthur said. “You can pick it up and take it back to a cleanroom and disassemble it in a relatively straightforward manner.”

Space Forge intends to manufacture a variety of high-value products in space including metal alloys and semiconductors in addition to performing biological research.

In-space manufacturing will “enable you to generate thousands and potentially tens of thousands of new products that aren’t available now,” Bacon said. “We’re focused on using these new super materials to solve the challenges that really matter like climate change by switching to materials that don’t generate as much carbon dioxide in their use. For us it’s about making things in space to bring back to Earth for the good of Earth.”

Returning cargo from space remains a challenge, though.

“In the last 20 years, the cost of launch has come down hugely, but the cost of return has not,” Bacon said. “The Space Shuttle is still the cheapest per kilogram reentry system ever built. So, there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Benchmark’s alliance with Space Forge is aimed at engine reusability.

“I know that Benchmark is keen on the ability to get those engines back after they’ve been in orbit and fired several times to be able to see them,” Bacon said. “What was the true performance being in orbit? Can we refurbish these engines and send them up again?”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...