Falcon 9 Transporter-2 launch
Lynk's fifth test satellite deployed successfully following the June 30 Falcon 9 launch of the Transporter-2 mission. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — Space manufacturing startup Varda Space will launch its first spacecraft on a Falcon 9 in early 2023 to demonstrate the ability to produce a wide range of materials in microgravity.

Varda Space announced Oct. 11 it signed a launch services agreement with SpaceX for that smallsat, which will be part of a Falcon 9 rideshare mission scheduled for the first quarter of 2023. The companies did not disclose the terms of the contract.

The spacecraft will spend up to three months in orbit to test space manufacturing technologies. At the end of that mission, a reentry capsule will return to Earth the material produced in orbit.

Company executives said they chose SpaceX because it offered the least expensive and most reliable solution for getting their spacecraft into orbit. “Launch costs is a core driver of our economics,” said Delian Asparouhov, co-founder and president of Varda Space, in an interview. “We want to stick to the lowest cost available solution.”

The company did not look far before selecting SpaceX. “We have some familiarity with SpaceX as a launch provider,” said Will Bruey, co-founder and chief executive of Varda Space. Bruey worked for nearly six years at SpaceX while Asparouhov is also a principal at Founders Fund, which has invested in both Varda Space and SpaceX.

Notably, the company decided not to launch the spacecraft on a Rocket Lab Electron even though it purchased three Photon satellite buses from Rocket Lab in August. “There were favorable economics for Photon and Electron,” Asparouhov said, but he was concerned about being too reliant on a single company. “If you concentrate risk around one vendor, it can be hard to recover.”

He added that Varda Space hadn’t ruled out launching on Electron in the future, and also hadn’t decided on launches after this initial mission. “The playing field is changing so rapidly,” he said. “There’s a world where we don’t necessarily launch with SpaceX on our second and later missions.”

Unlike communications and imaging spacecraft, Varda Space does not require a specific orbit for its mission beyond remaining in low Earth orbit, making it ideal for rideshare launches. “The only thing that matters is that the orbital inclination is high enough to go over our landing site,” Bruey said. The reentry capsule will come down over land, although the company has not disclosed a specific location.

The spacecraft is the first in a series designed to demonstrate the technologies needed to manufacture materials in microgravity. The second and third spacecraft will launch by the end of 2024, following an iterative approach building upon the lessons of previous missions. “They key to success is putting working hardware in orbit quickly,” Bruey said.

Varda Space, based in Torrance, California, announced a $42 million Series A round in July led by Khosla Ventures and Caffeinated Capital, and has raised more than $53 million to date. The company, though, has been vague about exactly what it will manufacture in space, mentioning a range of high-value products from pharmaceuticals to optical fiber.

Asparouhov declined to identify what material the first spacecraft will produce, saying the company would announce it once it signed a contract with a customer. He said there was a 50% chance that could happen in the next six months.

He added the company wants to take advantage of research done on the International Space Station as it prepares for its first mission. “The ISS has done a wide variety of materials. We’re not doing new science,” he said.

The company is working on the technologies needed for space manufacturing that Asparouhov said will give it a competitive advantage. But that engineering is not nearly as challenging as developing the reentry capsule that will return the materials to Earth.

“Strictly speaking, reentry is harder than any manufacturing hardware apparatus,” Bruey said. “Hitting the atmosphere at Mach 28 is the hardest problem.”

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...