Space manufacturing, a field whose promise has gone unrealized for decades, is now offering new opportunities thanks to the use of the International Space Station and reduced space access costs, some experts believe.
The best near-term opportunity to demonstrate the ability of space manufacturing to produce products of value on Earth, according to a panel at the SpaceCom Expo in Houston yesterday, may come from experiments flying to the station in the next year to test the production of high-quality optical fibers.
“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.”
One key demonstration of space manufacturing will take place on the ISS in the next year. Two companies plan to fly payloads on the station to test the ability to produce a high-quality optical fiber called ZBLAN, taking advantage of the microgravity conditions to make the fiber without the flaws created when such fiber is made on Earth.
Another company, FOMS Inc., is developing a similar payload that will fly to the ISS in 2018. Dmitry Starodubov, chief scientist of FOMS, said that high-quality ZBLAN fiber can sell for up to $2 million per kilogram. That high price per kilogram makes space manufacturing economical even at current costs to transport cargo to and from orbit.