Rocket Lab, space factories start-up Varda deal for Photon spacecraft

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Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite in orbit around the Earth.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab announced a deal with start-up Varda Space Industries on Wednesday to provide three Photon spacecraft to support Varda’s first in-space manufacturing missions beginning in 18 months.

“In simple terms, we are the real estate and the utilities for the space factory,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told 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.”

Beck declined to comment on the value of the contract, noting that it “is commercially sensitive to Varda and us.” Varda co-founder Delian Asparouhov told CNBC that purchasing “Photon lets us have the most aggressive schedule and the tightest budget.”

“We’re thrilled to be purchasing a platform that already has some flight heritage, and will have even more by the time we launch,” Asparouhov said.

Rocket Lab will deliver the first Photon spacecraft for Varda in the first quarter of 2023. The company is expected to deliver the next two spacecraft the year after, and there will be an option for Varda to buy a fourth Photon.

The early Varda missions are planned to be three months long, Rocket Lab said, from launch to reentering the capsule with the manufactured materials. Beck highlighted that the Varda Photon missions won’t launch on a Rocket Lab rocket, and instead are planned to fly as a secondary, or “rideshare,” payload on another company’s vehicle.

Varda was founded less than a year ago, by a pair with experience at Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, has raised more than $50 million in that time. Rocket Lab and Varda share Khosla Ventures as an investor.

While manufacturing in space is not a novel concept, Varda wants to take the process to the next level – to launch and return space-made products more quickly. The start-up plans to manufacture materials that are more lucrative when made in zero-gravity, such as fiber optic cables, pharmaceuticals, or semiconductors.

Rocket Lab’s “Photon” satellite platform, on the right, is shown at the company’s factory alongside an upper stage of the Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab

Varda will utilize Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft as the backbone of its operation, with the start-up adding its manufacturing module and a heatshield-protected capsule to survive the intense reentry process through the Earth’s atmosphere. Varda’s goal is to bring back about 100 kilograms (or 220 pounds) of material on its early missions.

Rocket Lab, which is one of the most active U.S. launch operators with its small Electron rockets, has been steadily expanding its space systems division, with the Photon spacecraft as the central piece. But Beck emphasized that Rocket Lab does not “think of Photon as a product; it’s a suite of products” as each of the spacecraft’s missions are different. The company has won contracts to use Photon for a variety of uses, including NASA missions to the moon and Mars, as well as a private mission to Venus.

When Rocket Lab earlier this year announced plans to go public by merging with special acquisition company Vector, it revealed it booked $2 million in space systems revenue last year. The company’s financial forecast expects the space systems division to grow exponentially, aiming to hit $656 million in revenue by 2027.

The company is nearing the close of its SPAC merger, with a shareholder meeting set for Aug. 20 to vote on the deal. Beck said Rocket Lab is “very happy with progress” in getting shareholder votes so far.

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