MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — These days, it’s hardly exotic to see a “made in China” sticker slapped on your favorite product. But what if that sticker said “made in space”?
A Mountain View. Calif.-based start-up earlier this month revealed new breakthroughs in its quest to build in-space factories that will orbit the Earth and pump out products that are too difficult or expensive to make at home. The technology is expected to revolutionize space exploration by allowing scientists access to better tools in space, and also provide people on Earth with unique space-made products such as improved fiber optic cables.
“In-space manufacturing and assembling has been the stuff of science fiction and the dream of the industry for almost the entire existence of the industry,” said Made in Space CEO Andrew Rush, who hosted journalists and NASA representatives at his company’s headquarters for a demo. “But now, for the first time, we’re making these really transformative steps toward making that a reality.”
In June, Made in Space successfully completed the first test of its manufacturing equipment in a vacuum chamber that simulates the microgravity environment of space — a major milestone, Rush said. The company’s partners at NASA hope to take that technology into orbit as early as 2020.
Made in Space’s project is part of a broader trend toward the commercialization of space. As NASA prepares to retire the International Space Station in 2024, private companies such as Axiom and Bigelow are rushing to take its place — the same way Elon Musk’s SpaceX stepped in when NASA ended its Space Shuttle program in 2011.
Made in Space hopes to help turn those private space stations into manufacturing hubs, producing what Rush calls a “low Earth orbit economy.”
Today, most things that are used in space have to get there via rocket launch. That’s expensive, slow and subjects the payload to intense G-force during the ride. Within the next decade, Rush hopes to manufacture most satellites in space — eliminating the need for launches.
He hopes eventually to use his company’s technology to build human settlements on Mars.
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In-space manufacturing also could have major implications for the search for life on other planets, said Steve Jurczyk, associate director of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Scientists can’t launch a telescope into space that’s big enough to produce high-quality, color images of planets that orbit other stars, Jurczyk said during the demo day.
If that telescope instead could be built in space, scientists could use it to study the atmospheres of other planets and determine whether they could support life.
NASA is working with Made in Space on its in-space manufacturing project as part of a $20 million partnership.
Made in Space operates from an unassuming building in Moffett Field, an abandoned naval air base that now houses NASA’s Ames Research Center and a cluster of private space-focused tech start-ups. That’s where engineers perfected the Archinaut — basically a 3-D printer with robotic arms. The printer prints out beams and other pieces, and the robotic arms are designed to autonomously assemble them into, say, a piece of a space station.
Unlike traditional 3-D printers, which produce objects smaller than themselves, the Archinaut can print massive pieces — it recently printed a 37.7 meter (41.2 yards) beam, which the Made in Space team now proudly displays in its second-floor hallway. This is the longest ever made by a 3-D printer.
Made in Space also has had a small 3-D printer, about the size of a microwave, onboard the International Space Station. The company sends it instructions remotely, via a “mission control room” in the Moffett Field office, and the printer has spit out everything from radiation shields to a game that can only be played in microgravity — something for the astronauts on the Space Station to do if they get bored.
Some experts say what Made in Space is attempting represents the next necessary step as humans continue to explore the universe.
“It’s essential for the growth of the industry,” said Sean Casey, co-founder and managing director of the Silicon Valley Space Center, an accelerator for space-focused start-ups. “We as a species need to understand how to build and construct things in low Earth orbit.”
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Of course, there will be a learning curve, Casey said, as building in space requires humans to re-learn the manufacturing process.
“There’s still a lot of ground to cover in perfecting that technology,” he said.
In-space manufacturing also has the potential to change life here on Earth. In November, Made in Space plans to start in-space production of optical fiber — the building block of the telecommunications industry.
Rush said the space-made fiber will be capable of conducting a signal that’s between 10 and 100 times better than what we use today because it will use an exotic glass called ZBLAN instead of the traditional silica fiber. Making the cables with ZBLAN doesn’t work as well on Earth, Rush said, because it forms crystals when subjected to gravity.
The company also is testing making bricks out of a synthetic material designed to simulate the topsoil on Mars — with the goal of someday building settlements on the planet out of its natural resources.