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Three Rocket Lab Spacecraft with 3D Printed Engines Ordered by Varda Space

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Rocket engine 3D printing firm Rocket Lab has signed a significant deal with Varda Space Industries, agreeing to provide the new space startup with three of its Photon spacecraft for its first in-space manufacturing missions to take place 18 months from now.

Rocket Lab is known for its almost entirely 3D printed rocket engine, Rutherford, the world’s first battery-powered rocket engine. Relying on an electric motor rather than gas, the Rutherford features prop valves, injectors, pumps and engine chambers that are all 3D printed with electron beam melting technology. So far, the Rutherford has powered the company’s small satellite launch vehicle, the Electron rocket, but, with funding from a SPAC merger that should be completed any day now, Rocket Lab aims to develop its medium-lift Neutron rocket.

A Photon spacecraft developed for NASA’s CAPSTONE project. Photon spacecraft can feature a 3D printed Curie engine. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.

Photon is a family of satellite spacecraft offered by the company, including individual components all the way up to interplanetary spacecraft. Rocket Lab’s 3D printed Curie, pump-fed engine is used both for the Electron’s third stage and the Photon satellite bus.

As a part of NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) project, a Photon spacecraft that will launch a NASA satellite into a unique lunar orbit not yet explored by any other spacecraft. The launch is expected to happen in Q4 2021, after Rocket Lab had to shift the launch from Virginia to New Zealand. Two more Photon spacecraft are being built for a scientific mission to Mars.

While the exact financial terms of the agreement weren’t made public, Varda co-founder Delian Asparouhov told CNBC, “Photon lets us have the most aggressive schedule and the tightest budget.” He added, “We’re thrilled to be purchasing a platform that already has some flight heritage, and will have even more by the time we launch.”

Varda is a young startup, established just a year ago by veterans of SpaceX and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. So far, the company has raised over $50 million, including Khosla Ventures as an investor, who has also funded Rocket Lab. The company is following in the footsteps of Redwire company Made In Space with plans to manufacture items in space.

Not unlike Made In Space’s concept of producing fiber optics in space and returning them to Earth, Varda aims to produce materials in zero-gravity—such as fiber optic cables, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors—and ship them back home. The idea here is that these materials can be made more quickly and cost effectively in space.

The Photon spacecraft will power Varda’s mission. Integrating its own manufacturing module and a heatshield-protected capsule to prevent burning up upon reentry, Varda is determined to produce 220 pounds (100 kg) of material in its first missions. Each manufacturing mission is meant to be three months long, including launch, production, and returning the spacecraft to Earth with the specialty materials.

“In simple terms, we are the real estate and the utilities for the space factory,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said on CNBC. “We really provide all of the utilities, the power, the pointing and communications and everything to enable the little factory to work away and do their thing.”

The first Photon spacecraft will be supplied to Varda in Q1 of 2023, with two more scheduled for 2024 and an option for Varda to purchase an additional Photon. All of these spacecraft will include components made by Rocket Lab, such as radios, reaction wheels and star trackers. The spacecraft will execute multiple burns using the 3D-printed Cure engine to send Varda’s re-entry capsule on a return trajectory to Earth. In this case, Varda won’t be using Electrons or Neutrons to launch, but will stow their spacecraft aboard another rocket as a secondary or tertiary payload.

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab is in the process of completing its SPAC merger, according to Beck, who told CNBC that the shareholder meeting to vote on the deal is set for August 20.

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