Made In Space is about to embark on a new chapter of its space-enabled manufacturing business, and life on Earth could easily be transformed for the better because of it.
Made In Space got its start in additive manufacturing back in 2011 when it built a 3D printing lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The company has since launched two 3D printers into space, making Made In Space the first company to have manufactured any products in space.
Now, it’s gearing up to become the first company to create an industry in space, by manufacturing large amounts of special fiber optic cable, called ZBLAN. Made in Space CEO Andrew Rush calls the project “the first industrial use of space.”
He believes it’s going to be big — both for the development of a space-based economy, and for our lives down here on Earth. The space fiber could introduce whole new markets and open up new industries on the planet by giving our connectivity a big boost. “This fiber has the potential to deliver orders of magnitude more capability to data centers and long haul telecommunication like trans-oceanic lines,” Rush told The Downlink. “Because we’re uniquely positioned as the only company in the world that’s commercially manufacturing in space, we have the expertise to actually start producing en masse this optical fiber in space.”
Producing fiber optic cable in space isn’t easy. There are a number of engineering feats the company had to overcome in order to realize the vision. The most challenging part of doing anything in space is the finite resource of pressurized volume — aka room for activities.
Made In Space has built what it calls a “miniature fiber-pulling machine” that’s about the size of a microwave oven, which will be flown to the International Space Station (ISS) later this summer on SpaceX’s Dragon. The company is now just months away from seeing that first factory test realized, and the team is excited.
“We hope to make at least 100 meters for the initial pilot,” Rush said. “People use the terrestrially-produced version now, so this will provide an immediate improvement for those folks.”
Those folks consist mainly of medical facilities, researchers and universities, but once the company is able to ramp-up its production of the space fiber, Made In Space is hoping to open up new markets for the cable, like telecom, that the current Earth-bound manufacturing methods can’t support.
“Those are markets that need thousands of kilometers of material per year; they’re both billion dollar industries,” Rush said. “In order to service those markets completely, we need more capacity than exists on the International Space Station.”
Realizing the potential of ZBLAN fiber
The “exotic” space fiber is made from a heavy metal fluoride glass called ZBLAN, which was discovered in the 1970s and NASA has been researching it ever since. ZBLAN gets its name from its chemical composition: ZrF4–BaF2–LaF3–AlF3–NaF.
The ZBLAN fiber is able to transmit data more efficiently over long distances than traditional silica fiber optics. The problem with ZBLAN is that it’s prone to crystallization when made on Earth, which means the fiber is useful today but incredibly expensive.
When manufactured in space, ZBLAN fiber can be made without much crystallization at all, paving the way for the mass production of incredibly high quality fiber optic cable. That’s the opportunity that Made In Space is pouncing on.
“We live in this world that’s just hungry for data, [and] there’s some really amazing properties that you can unlock in ZBLAN if you manufacture it in a zero-g environment,” Rush said. Without crystallization, ZBLAN fiber experiences less light attenuation (signal loss) than traditional silica optical fibers. “That’s really important, because you can send a signal much, much further, which means I don’t need to boost the signal as often, which means I get a much faster response time. I also have a wider transmission window, because I can send more light down the same pipe, which means more data.”
Traditional fiber optic cable manufacturing occurs in large two-story tall towers. The furnace at the top essentially melts the silica glass, which then is pulled downward through the tower to create the thin thread of glass — a process called “drawing” — through which light (data) will later be transmitted. On Earth, ZBLAN is difficult to draw into fiber optic threads, in part because the gravity conditions on Earth make the ZBLAN melt more prone to crystallization before it can be formed into fiber.
Manufacturing fiber optic cable in space means no gravity, and no two-story tall tower. Instead, Made In Space has designed a shorter, squatter version of the fiber drawing tower that can fit inside the ISS.
The smaller factory design operates mostly autonomously. When the factory, along with the preform fluoride glass rods that’ll be turned into fiber optic cable, arrive at the Space Station, the astronauts will plug it in and connect it to the network, “and our guys on the ground will send the start command and monitor it,” Rush said. From then on, “it’s going to run on its own. We had to make it robotic, to automatically start the pull, wind it, monitor it, have a good feedback loop and ultimately wind it around the spool.”
After the first 100 meters of ZBLAN fiber is made, the test factory and its fiber optic cable will be sent back to Earth on the Dragon. Made In Space will characterize the fiber — in other words, test the fiber to determine its integrity — and then ship it off to customers.
Rush didn’t share prices, but ZBLAN fiber today runs for between $150 per meter to as much as $3,000 per meter, depending on the quality of the fiber.
Getting to Scale
After the initial pilot run, Made In Space will next be looking at ways to expand production of ZBLAN fiber beyond the ISS. The details of exactly when and where that larger-scale production facility will be in operation are still getting worked out, but Rush said the difficult engineering problems are largely solved.
“Getting to large scale production is something that we want to do within five years — we’ve intentionally designed the system to be automated, modular and scalable,” Rush said. “Our challenge is to stay flexible, because the aerospace industry is a fluid industry and we want to succeed on not just one path but on all paths.”
Not all of those paths have materialized yet. One option could be for Made In Space to set up shop in a private commercial space station, such as those being developed now by the likes of Axiom and Bigelow Aerospace. Another option is for Made In Space to launch its own module into space to serve as a factory. Whatever the platform, Rush is confident the company will get its large scale space fiber factory up and running one way or another.
“Our goal is to have a persistent presence in lower Earth orbit manufacturing this material. Whether that be on a commercial space station or buying our own rocket and launching our own free flyer, we want to have factories in space manufacturing,” he said.