Making Stuff in Space: Off-Earth Manufacturing is Just Getting Started

Image Credit: Joshua Earle

Space is a perilous place for humans to inhabit: microgravity slackens our muscles and upsets our fluid balance, radiation threatens to ravage DNA, and the yawning vacuum outside is a constant threat. However, for other materials that display phenomenal strength, transmit data with virtually no loss, form huge crystal structure or even develop into organs, the conditions in orbit can be an ideal environment for manipulation, and even manufacture.

With the financial cost of space flight dropping year on year, the study of these kinds of materials in space is becoming more and more viable, so much so that we may see people owning possessions made in space much sooner than we’d think.

The New Manufacturing Frontier

As we know, there are many different types of companies that are engaged in aerospace development. For example, Firefly founded by Max Polyakov is working with satellite technologies, while ‘Made in Space’ is looking into the future of running manufacturing in space. CEO Andrew Rush has praised the potential of the environment in space and it’s possible application for a multitude of different manufacturing scenarios.

Microgravity enables materials to grow without being impeded by the stronger gravitational pull found on Earth; materials can mix and remain in balance without the processes that would normally be required, and access granted to the ever present vacuum can be used to help substances form free from possible impurities.

Outer Limits

The International Space Station is falling towards Earth at all times in the course of its orbit, and the crew onboard experience this as zero gravity. This microgravity environment is useful for the development of the kind of materials that grow out in every direction, and therefore need to avoid the threats of contamination posed by coming into contact with the walls of an enclosure. One area of industry that stands to profit the most from the manufacturing possibilities offered by a microgravity environment is computer and tech hardware development, which require ever higher degrees of miniaturization.

Consequently, this creates a need for more fidelity in the manufacture process, to the point that reduced physical effects of microgravity can offer a more acute manufacturing environment thanks to reduced stresses. One existing example of this is a new kind of fiber-optic cable called ZBLAN: when produced in microgravity, the cable is less likely to develop the tiny crystals than can result in signal loss, and so it becomes a more formidable piece of technology when manufactured in space. The product is also sufficiently lightweight as to be cost-effective to produce in commercial quantities off-world. That’s why specialized tech is likely to be one of the driving forces of space manufacture: the ratio of profit to weight is likely to make them practical to make in space.

A Multitude of Uses

ZBLAN looks to be one of the pioneering examples of space manufacture today, but there are many other avenues that hold the promise of exciting developments. Crystal structure can grow much more easily in lower gravity environments, rendering greater batch yields that could benefit the pharmacological industry in the manufacture of certain drugs. Metallurgy is another field for potential applications: due to lower gravity, it’s possible to make more evenly mixed alloys that would otherwise suffer the stratifying effects of gravity on the component metals. This leads to stronger, sturdier metals that couldn’t achieve a commensurate integrity when made on Earth. Even if commercial manufacture would be too expensive to base in space, research and development teams could use the microgravity environments to make superlative prototypes that could then be replicated in a pared down capacity on Earth, and serve as the ideal for further development.

As regards medicine, the microgravity condition also favors cell growth and provides conditions that could massively expedite the growth of organ tissue for researchers trying to develop new organs for transplant from scratch. While this kind of medical technology is still in its infancy here on Earth, many of the pioneers in this field already have one eye on the possibilities of space manufacture. A more pressing field of space manufacture imagines space stations using 3D printers to manufacture components for space vessels themselves. Eventually, people in space could simply use 3D printers in an ad-hoc capacity to address and manufacture needs that come up, meaning they could travel with just the raw printer materials and a set of digital blueprints. Of course, many of these ideas are still very much in the theory stages, but as more and more companies turn their attention to the stars, space manufacture is certain to become a reality sooner than later.


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