Foust Forward | Manufacturing a low Earth orbit economy
Several years ago, some commercial space advocates thought they had finally found the long-awaited killer app for space manufacturing: optical fibers. Researchers said that a type of glass called ZBLAN could be used in microgravity to produce fibers with far fewer imperfections than fibers produced terrestrially, resulting in less attenuation of signals. Such fibers could be the ideal space-manufactured product: high value but low mass and with growing demand given insatiable appetites for bandwidth.
However, experiments in ZBLAN fiber production have yet to convert into commercial production. At the recent International Space Station Research and Development Conference, scientists said producing such fibers in space was turning out to be harder than expected.
“The challenge is in translating that process to the microgravity environment where the heating rates are different, the cooling rates are different, there are changes in material properties and some other effects that will throw you off just a little bit,” said Amrit De, chief executive of Apsidal, a startup working on producing optical fibers and other photonics technologies.
ZBLAN fiber is just the latest in a long line of products that had been touted as demonstrating the potential of space manufacturing, taking advantage of microgravity and vacuum conditions to create items that cannot be made as well, or at all, on Earth. Over the last few decades, companies have proposed making unusual alloys, semiconductor wafers, protein crystals and even ball bearings in space, but none have succeeded in the market.
De said it was too early to give up on ZBLAN fibers. “We need to iterate around that to perfect the process,” he said of those problems producing such fibers. “We just need to be patient and plow through the problem.”
Patience, though, will be a challenge for NASA and companies alike as they work to transition from the ISS to commercial space stations by the end of the decade. Companies working on those stations have to not only design and develop them but also figure out the mix of customers for them.
NASA has made it clear that while it will be a major customer for the stations whose development it is supporting through the Commercial LEO Destinations program, it has no desire to be the only customer. Companies working on those stations expect to have a mix of customers on their stations, including commercial and government researchers, space tourists and manufacturers.
For now, those companies remain optimistic they’ll find customers that include space manufacturing, even if it’s not certain now who they will be. “We all know how to build space stations. That’s not the tricky part,” said Christian Maender, executive vice president for in-space solution at Axiom Space, during a conference panel. “The harder part is going to be building some of these markets.”
Rick Mastracchio, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, agreed. “It’s a small step for us to build a space station, so to speak,” he said, citing the company’s experience in modules and spacecraft. “Building the business of the space station is the other half of the challenge, and maybe the more difficult one, in my opinion.”
Space station developers said they’re open to more unconventional markets for their stations beyond the materials and biomedical applications long touted for space. “It can just be the uniqueness of making a product in space,” said Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space. “You can make a perfume from flowers that are grown in a vegetable habitat up there.”
Apsidal’s De says a breakthrough is still possible with ZBLAN fiber, given enough effort. “Your successes sometimes come very suddenly,” he said. “You can see very large improvements come very quickly.”
Space station developers, though, are casting a wide net for potential applications of their stations should traditional ones fall through. Kavandi offered another unusual use for a space station, producing a product in higher demand than even optical fibers. “You could have distilleries up there.”
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the August 2022 issue.