Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft on orbit (Source: Rocket Lab)

Varda orders 3 Rocket Lab spacecraft for space factories

Rocket Lab has signed a deal with in-space manufacturing company Varda Space Industries to make three Photon spacecraft to provide propulsion, power, data, and attitude control for Varda’s space factories.  It’s a fast track deal yielding SPAC benefits to Rocket Lab and putting Varda on the map to manufacture high-value products in orbit.

“The Varda team is undertaking ground-breaking work that really opens up new possibilities and markets for in-space manufacturing and we couldn’t be more excited to make their mission possible with Photon,” said Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Peter Beck. “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. Our customers get to orbit faster and can focus purely on their mission while there, rather than worrying about developing and operating a spacecraft.” 

Varda plans to make fiber optic cable, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors in space, with the Rocket Lab Photon connected to Varda’s 120 kilogram manufacturing and re-entry modules.  The Photon will move the spacecraft into an operational orbit, providing power, data, and attitude control while manufacturing takes place.  Once completed, Photon will perform multiple burns to place the Varda re-entry capsule on a return trajectory to Earth.

While Varda has not officially disclosed what item it will manufacture first, the most likely candidate is high-quality, low-defect fiber optic cable.  Multiple companies have demonstrated the ability to manufacture ZBLAN optical fiber onboard the International Space Station, but Varda appears to be the first to move forward to product commercial quantities using a dedicated launch vehicle and (presumably disposable) factory.

The first Varda Photon is planned for delivery in Q1 2023, with others scheduled for 2H 2023 and a third in 2024, with an option to build a fourth Photon. Each mission is expected to run three months from launch to landing.  Launch of the Varda/Photon missions is expected to take place onboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare missions.  Landing, while not specified by Varda, would likely take place in the Mojave desert or another area with a lot of flat and uninhabited territory.

Varda has received a total of $53 million in venture money to date, with investors including Khosla Ventures, Lux Capital, Founders Fund, Caffeinated Capital, General Catalyst and Also Capital. A single successful ZBLAN production mission could generate up to $40 million in revenues through the sale of high-quality fiber, according to one estimate on Twitter.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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