LONDON — Northrop Grumman’s U.K. arm is partnering with British firm Space Forge, a startup that plans to manufacture semiconductors in orbit.
The companies announced a “collaborative agreement” on Sept. 12 at the DSEI conference here. Through the arrangement, Northrop will provide technical and business advice, collaborate on design and testing and offer training for Space Forge on microelectronics development.
“Manufacturing in orbit has the potential to open a wide range of opportunities across multiple industrial sectors,” Northrop’s vice president of civil and commercial space, Steve Krein, said in a Sept. 12 statement. “As a global leader in space exploration and in-orbit servicing, we look forward to collaborating to further develop this emerging market.”
Space Forge was established in 2018 with ambitions to develop a spacecraft that can manufacture high-performance materials in orbit. Its ForgeStar vehicle — expected to launch for the first time later this year — is designed to reside in space for up to six months as it performs its manufacturing mission and then return to Earth with materials in tow.
The company has its headquarters in Wales and announced plans in April to expand its manufacturing operations to the U.S., though it has not revealed details on where that facility will be located.
The premise of Space Forge and other nascent companies looking to establish manufacturing capabilities in orbit is that the space environment, particularly conditions like microgravity and ultra-high vacuum, could produce higher quality materials and improve the efficiency of certain manufacturing processes like 3D printing.
While the concept is not new, technology developments in recent decades and the drop-in launch costs have made the business case more feasible — especially for the semiconductor and pharmaceuticals industries.
David Pile, regional director for Northrop’s space business sector in the U.K., Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, said that while semiconductors built in space will initially be more expensive to produce due to the cost of sending them to and from orbit, the goal is to scale the capability within these specialized sectors to make it more affordable.
“Are we ever going to scale up semiconductor manufacturing on orbit versus doing it on Earth for the normal day-to-day things? Probably not,” he told Defense News in a Sept. 13 interview. “It’s always going to be more expensive. But it’s about these niche cases.”
Pile characterized the agreement with Space Forge as the first step in a partnership that could eventually bolster Northrop’s semiconductor supply chain. The defense contractor — which builds the U.S. Air Force’s B-21 bomber and the U.S. Army’s Integrated Battle Command System — has two U.S. foundries where it processes raw materials into semiconductor chips that are eventually integrated into major weapon systems.
For now, Northrop’s role will largely be in validating the Space Force-produced materials after they return to Earth. Pile said the company hasn’t committed to a financial investment in the startup.
“In-space manufacturing is an area we think is going to grow massively in the next few decades, so we’re very keen to work with them,” Pile said. “Given how many electronic systems we build across the company, there’s loads and loads of applications where this is possibly a game changer.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.