“The opportunities for in-space manufacturing have never been better,” said Lynn Harper of the Space Portal Office at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Large-scale manufacturing could be tested and perfected on the ISS, and then implemented in the many commercial carriers that are starting to emerge.”
Made in Space, an in-space manufacturing company is looking to manufacture a special type of fibre-optic cable called ZBLAN. By manufacturing in microgravity, tiny crystals that increase signal loss can be avoided. By avoiding these flaws, the cable is better at transmitting light signals by orders of magnitude over cables developed on Earth. The selling prices for a kilo of ZBLAN on Earth is around $1 Million and considering the costs of launching a kilo into space is around $20,000, the investment is expected to pay off.
“Demand for high-tech solutions requiring higher resolutions, faster processors, more bandwidth, greater precision, novel materials, unique alloys, innovative processes, higher energy efficiency, more processes in a smaller volume and more sophisticated tools, in general, are pushing materials and processes for manufacturing to the point that defects at the atomic- and molecular-level matter,” said Lynn Harper.
Space is a dangerous place for humans. Microgravity weakens muscles, radiation tears through our DNA and the vacuum outside is an ever-present threat. But for materials that show incredible strength, transmit information with barely any loss, form enormous crystals or even grow into organs, the harshness of space can be the perfect construction zone. As the cost of spaceflight goes down, more of these materials may become cost-effective to make or study in space.
There is enormous potential in this field with private firms such as SpaceX, Blue Origins, and Virgin Galactic making serious advances into commercialization. The reusability of the rockets launched by SpaceX has driven down the costs drastically. The volumes of data collected by SpaceX in their numerous successful launches have benefited the firm in securing multiple contracts from governments and corporations. Space manufacturing and commercialization may not be a dream too far away, and it could happen very much in our lifetime.
The famous photograph of astronaut Barry “Butch” E. Wilmore holding a ratchet that he printed onboard the International Space Station.