Varda Space Industries hopes that this launch will mark the beginning of a new era in many branches of industry.
This is a great moment for Varda Space Industrie. Last week, this California-based startup founded by a SpaceX veteran sent its first-ever satellite into orbit…and it’s a craft like no other. It is indeed a space pharmaceutical factory prototype which will also be used to study the challenges of hypersonic flight.
Many specialists have been thinking about the issues of production in space for some time now. Some consider, for example, that it could be very interesting to directly assemble satellites and other equipment directly in orbit in order to circumvent a lot of logistical difficulties.
But that’s not the goal of Varda’s satellite at all; it is designed to become a pharmaceutical factory. An idea that might seem absurd at first glance, but which is in fact based on a basis that could not be more pragmatic.
Microgravity at the service of industry
By moving the production equipment away from the Earth, we find ourselves in so-called microgravity conditions. And on paper, this is a significant advantage. Indeed, the earth’s gravity is a far from negligible force in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Taking it out of the equation, we can overcome a number of constraints.
For example, on Earth, particles suspended in a liquid tend to clump together, float to the surface or sink to the bottom of a container. This is not the case in microgravity; in this case, the particles float wisely in the liquid with a more or less homogeneous distribution.
And once put together, these particularities could make it possible to produce chemical species with very interesting properties. For example, a statement from Varda explains that this approach provides very significant control over “ particle size and distribution or crystal structure “.
In other words, it makes it possible to manufacture active ingredients with extraordinary precision. According to the firm, the therapeutic benefits are considerable. In particular, this would make it possible to obtain more stable molecules, with greater bioavailability. And above all, it would be possible to produce this kind of compounds in very large quantities much more easily than on Earth. And inevitably, this approach could generate simply staggering profits knowing the price of certain active ingredients that are difficult to produce.
Two test campaigns on the same vehicle
Before getting there, this first test campaign will already have to offer convincing results. For a week, Varda will start by thoroughly checking all the equipment in his factory. If these tests are conclusive, she will begin a series of experiments on Ritonavir, a drug used in the treatment of AIDS. The objective will be to determine any differences in molecular structure that could appear if the active principle were produced in microgravity.
But the satellite’s mission will not stop there. After about a month of testing, the spacecraft will perform a maneuver to plunge back to Earth at more than 25x the speed of sound; and Varda intends to take advantage of this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. As part of a contract with the US Army, the vehicle has been equipped with a number of equipment that will allow test technologies related to hypersonic flight — a major challenge for tomorrow’s aerospace and military industry.
Here is the most powerful hypersonic wind tunnel in the world
The dawn of a new era for the industry
And if these tests prove conclusive, Varda will also benefit directly. Ultimately, it aims to build reusable industrial modules that will enable its future customers to produce a wide variety of substances and components in orbit.
And that deadline could come relatively quickly. Varda is already planning to launch a second mission later this year. And this time, if all goes well, it will be a joint mission with a real customer who intends to produce equipment in microgravity. Very impressive for a company founded less than three years ago.
And most excitingly, Varda is far from the only company pursuing this potentially very lucrative goal. We can notably cite Thales Alenia Space, which soon wants to deploy a “ specialized platform for experimentation and manufacturing in space (see our article here).
And several other big names in aerospace also have similar plans. It will therefore be appropriate to carefully monitor the fallout from this adventure, which will soon bring us a foretaste of tomorrow’s orbital industry.