Belgian companies are building first-ever factory in space

Hainaut-based aerospace group Sonaca and Zaventem-based Space Applications Services (SAS) will jointly design the prototype of a first space factory, Sonaca announced on Monday. They won the European tender, beating companies such as Thales and Airbus.

A consortium led by Space Applications Services, of which Sonaca is a member, will launch the 'StarFab' project this month to design the first prototype of an automated, zero-gravity factory. This will explore the future possibilities of a logistics economy in space.

The space factory should also make it possible to recycle the thousands of obsolete satellites orbiting the Earth, which could otherwise damage other satellites still in use. Lighter structures to facilitate terrestrial rocket launches, which in the long term should facilitate further human exploration of space, will also be designed.

"This is not a short-term plan, but it is not science fiction either"

Designing an automated warehouse in space is a major technological challenge, says Sonaca, because goods have to be moved without the help of gravity. There are also the stringent environmental requirements of space to consider. AI will play an important role in the development.

In addition, Sonaca and its subsidiary Sonaca Montreal have signed another cooperation agreement with the Canadian company MDA to develop complex new devices that will control the sensors of the intelligent robotic system in the factory. The robots will be equipped with various cameras, lidars and headlights so they can sense their environment.

Belgian backing

Belgium is supporting the early stages of the StarFab project, which is expected to have a demonstration model by 2026. "By subsidising as a government when there is still a long way to go before commercialisation, we are helping to minimise risks," state secretary for Science Policy Thomas Dermine told De Standaard.

Once this stage is done, there will be a European call for tenders to build StarFab and launch it into space. But that will not be soon, says Dermine. "This is not a short-term plan, but it is not science fiction either. Lunar colonies, power plants in space, these are projects for the early 2030s. We will see all of that."


A Sonaca factory worker. © BELGA PHOTO JONAS ROOSENS

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