Photon Pathstone
In addition to launching six smallsats, the latest Electron mission includes "Photon Pathstone," a second test of the company's smallsat bus. Credit: Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab will build and launch three of its Photon spacecraft to serve as platforms for a startup with space manufacturing aspirations.

Rocket Lab announced Aug. 11 a contract with Varda Space Industries for three Electron launches of its Photon spacecraft. The launches are scheduled from the first quarter of 2023 through 2024, with the option for a fourth mission.

Each Photon will serve as a platform for Varda’s “space factories,” hardware the startup is developing to produce a range of products in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit. The Photons will provide propulsion and station-keeping, as well as attitude control and communications. Varda will develop the 120-kilogram factories, which include a return capsule that will reduce the manufactured products back to Earth at the end of a three-month mission.

Rocket Lab sees the deal as evidence of one of the selling points of its smallsat system. “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,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement. “Our customers get to orbit faster and can focus purely on their mission while there, rather than worrying about developing and operating a spacecraft.”

“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,” Will Bruey, chief executive of Varda, said in a statement.

Varda raised a $42 million Series A round July 28, led by Khosla Ventures and Caffeinated Capital, and has raised $53 million to date. The company, based in Torrance, California, says its goal is to be the “worldwide leader in commercial microgravity manufacturing.”

Varda, though, has offered few details about its plans. It says it will pursue in-space manufacturing of fiber optic cables, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors, although those products have widely varying requirements. The company did not respond to questions about its plans for the Photon missions, including whether those missions are intended primarily to be technology demonstrations or if they will generate revenue.

Space manufacturing has a long and largely disappointing history. In the 1980s, some pinned their hopes on the space shuttle, space station and other platforms to produce products ranging from protein crystals to semiconductors, but failed to create products valuable enough to cover the high costs of producing them and returning them to Earth. More recently, companies have explored producing a type of high-quality optical fiber called ZBLAN on the International Space Station, but none have reported any significant commercial sales of those materials.

Rocket Lab announced Photon in 2019 and has launched two demonstration missions, most recently in March. The first operational Photon mission is scheduled for the fourth quarter for NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission. Photon will serve as an upper stage to boost CAPSTONE toward the moon before releasing that satellite, then make a flyby of the moon.

Rocket Lab announced a contract June 15 from the Space Science Laboratory (SSL) of the University of California Berkeley to study the use Photon for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) mission to Mars, selected by NASA in 2019. EscaPADE underwent a redesign involving Photon after losing its original ride to Mars as a rideshare payload on the Psyche mission.

EscaPADE would launch on a NASA-supplied vehicle, and not a Rocket Lab Electron, in 2024 if the mission passes a series of reviews this summer and is confirmed for development by the agency.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...