WHEN people talk about space, they tend to think of space travel or colonising other planets. Less talked about is the concept of manufacturing things in space. There are many advantages to doing this but thus far it’s still very much in the concept stage because of the high cost of doing something like this.
To manufacture something in space, you obviously need to send into space not only the manufacturing devices but also plenty of raw materials. And this isn’t cheap. However, with advances made in space travel and the incessant march of technology, sending things into space will grow more affordable.
That, coupled with the fact that very valuable things can be created in space will ensure that in time, manufacturing in space will become a very common practice.
One of the key advantages to creating stuff in space is something called microgravity (or as the term implies, very weak gravity) which allows materials to grow without encountering any walls or enclosures. This allows the materials to mix more evenly and in some cases, this will result in better products.
A good case in point involves crystals. Under microgravity situations, crystals can grow larger than usual. In an article published by Space.com, it was found that in one experiment involving proteins, crystals grew to be 6 cubic millimetres, compared to the 0.5 cubic millimetres that is the norm when they are made on Earth.
Metals are generally not so strong in their pure form. They tend to be stronger when they’re integrated with carbon or some other types of metals. Some of these alloys can only be done in very low gravity situations. Because heavy stuff doesn't sink to the bottom in microgravity, you’re able to create metallic alloys with a homogenous blend of metals that would not be easy (or even possible) to be made on earth.
A substance called gallium nitride, which is used to make LEDs, is difficult to make because its two constituent molecules don't always bind perfectly and thus leads to defects. A microgravity situation, it seems, can help to decrease those defects.
CREATING HUMAN ORGANS
These are just some examples of things that can be manufactured in space to produce superior products. But space manufacturing can also help save lives. An interesting item to “manufacture”, or perhaps “harvest” is a more appropriate term, are human organs. If we’re to ever grow cells into an organ, it should be done in space because cells can grow better there as there isn’t much gravity to pull them down into their containers.
Of course, creating human organs is something that’s still way in the future. But there are some things that could be done very soon. The item closest to being commercialised is a fibre-optic cable based on fluoride glass called ZBLAN (Zirconium, Barium, Lanthanum, Aluminium and Sodium) which is far more efficient than regular fibre optics.
It’s hard to manufacture these on Earth because convection causes micro-crystals to form on the cables, causing them to be less efficient. When made in microgravity, the cables are less likely to develop that tiny crystals that increase signal loss. These high-quality cables can fetch a high price.
CONSTRUCTION IN SPACE
The obvious advantage of building things in space is that we could make big structures that would be impractical to make on earth and then send into space. If we could construct such things in space instead, you’ll see the emergence of things like far bigger (and more comfortable space stations). One can imagine really big telescopes that would allow scientists to see further than ever before or gigantic solar panels to capture energy at a scale unimaginable today.
All this can be created in space itself rather than on Earth through the wonder of 3D printing. Actually, the concept of 3D printing in space isn’t brand new. It has been around for about five years now.
In 2014, a company called Made in Space sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station. It has since sent more advanced 3D printers. Currently, its 3D printers are still focused on plastics but eventually it will get into printing metals as well. Founded in 2010, Made in Space’s goal is to pioneer sustainable space infrastructure for space manufacturing.
The company has a space construction device called Archinaut, which is basically a robot with a built-in 3D printer. It sounds like something out of science fiction but Archinaut would potentially make it possible to create the kind of large-sized, space-based items mentioned earlier. Satellites, for example, no longer need to be sent into space. They can be manufactured right there in space itself.
One can’t talk about space and escape the concept of colonising new worlds. But when humans get to these new places, it would literally be virgin territory. There’s nothing there for habitation.
It’s impractical to send large objects there and not to mention super expensive too. Why not just build what you need there? Again, 3D printing comes into the picture. It’s already been proven that 3D printers can create actual houses here on Earth. There’s no reason why this technology couldn’t be used on the Moon or on Mars, for example.
The main impediments to space manufacturing right now isn’t the technology but as mentioned, the high cost of sending raw materials into space. Of course, this will eventually change and we’ll see then that companies like Made In Space wouldn’t be unique but rather common.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].