DARPA awards in-orbit manufacturing contract to Momentus

In the not too distant future agency wants to found factories in the sky

A space company with a troubled past has been thrown a possible lifeline by DARPA, which has awarded it a contract to demonstrate the first steps towards building an orbital factory. 

No, we're not talking about SpaceX or Elon Musk. This deal for the Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials, and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D) program has been awarded to Momentus, a self-described "space transportation and infrastructure services" startup. 

The San Jose-based biz has high aspirations. It hopes to someday offer in-space infrastructure for the orbital manufacturing industry. An industry, we note, which doesn't exist yet. 

"The vision is to transport raw materials from Earth for in-orbit manufacturing," Momentus said, referring to the NOM4D project's objective. "Unlike deployable structures optimized for ground tests and launch survival, these structures—such as solar arrays, antennas, and optics—will be specifically designed for the space environment."

Several universities and private companies have been brought together to develop technology for NOM4D. Momentus's role in the on-orbit demo will be to provide integration with its Vigoride Orbital Service Vehicle. Vigoride uses a proprietary water-based propulsion system that allows it to modify its own orbit and eventually act as a "space tug" able to move other spacecraft and satellites.


CGI simulation of Momentus' Vigoride spacecraft - Click to enlarge

"Vigoride's flexibility, payload capacity, and power make it well-suited to support the demonstration of NOM4D technologies that overcome current volume, load, and vibration constraints currently limiting the type and scale of in-space structures," said CEO John Rood. 

Momentus will work with other NOM4D performers to design and refine experiments for inclusion on a future Vigoride launch. It's not clear what experiments will be aboard, or when the launch will take place. 

Also unclear: Momentus' future

Momentus was once a startup with bright days ahead of it, but things soured when it began working on its IPO, a messy affair that led to the departure of its Russian founders and a fairly immediate loss of corporate value. 

By late last year Momentus was beginning to have serious money problems. It laid off 30 percent of employees in August, and by early 2024 had canceled a planned space-tug mission, Vigoride-7. 

The launch was canceled, Momentus said, due to its "inability to support continuing operations for the expected launch date as a result of the company's limited liquidity and cash balance." 

"The company continues to pursue opportunities to raise additional capital to allow for its continuing operations and the execution of its business plan but does not have definitive commitments at this time," Momentus added in a January SEC filing. The company also announced in the document that it had lost a potential contract with the Space Development Agency for Tranche 2 of its tracking satellite constellation. 

Momentus has signed a deal with SpaceX for two launches this year - in June and October. It's not clear if those missions are still scheduled, or whether Vigoride-7 will be launched at a later date. 

"The company has not generated sufficient revenues to provide cash flows that enable the company to finance its operations internally and the company's financial position and operating results raise substantial doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern," it said of its future, adding that it had also laid off another 20 percent of its staff in Q4 2023 "to reduce its cash burn rate." 

Momentus's financial state is unlikely to have been helped by the fact it was ordered by the SEC in 2021 to pay more than $8 million in civil penalties for lying to investors during its IPO. 

"Momentus' business plans and multi-billion dollar revenue projections, as provided to investors … were materially false and misleading," the SEC said of the matter. The special-purpose acquisition company founded to take Momentus public "also engaged in negligent misconduct by repeating and disseminating Momentus' misrepresentations in Commission filings without a reasonable basis in fact." 

Most recently, Momentus ran into trouble with the Nasdaq for failing to file its most recent quarterly report - and its 2023 annual report. The company admitted it's been threatened with having its stock delisted if it doesn't get the reports filed within 60 days, which Momentus said it plans to do.

It's unknown how much the DARPA deal is worth, but given the state of things at Momentus it's likely a lifeline for the fledgling business. ®

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