Made In Space: How space manufacturing is becoming a reality

Josh Gilbert

Over recent years, we have seen a renaissance in innovation and investment in the “new space” sector. Enabled via convergent technological trends, start-ups and innovators are driving rapid growth in areas such as satellite data and geospatial analytics. Made In Space is among a cohort of new space companies hoping to drive humanity into the cosmos, and to engender revenue-generating, space-based industry along the way.

Much of the media coverage of MIS has focused upon headline-grabbing future applications, such as extra-terrestrial heavy manufacturing facilities. In this article, we aim to go beyond the hype to explore the business case and potential revenue models that can help open up commercial opportunities in space, and to transition MIS into an established industrial manufacturer.

Growing pains and emergent markets

Despite a plethora of new start-ups and significant private sector investment, the truth is that to date, there remains limited demand-side pull for orbital industry from the private sector, beyond satellite data provision and analytics. Today, the bottom line is that data is the only current way to monetize the new space economy. But with many heralding a future for mankind as an interplanetary species, it is crucial to develop further opportunities for the private sector in space.

Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space

The big question – to use a metaphor given to me by Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space – is how do we transition from going on space camping trips, to settling down? Cheaper launch costs, smaller satellites, and reusable rockets have made space more affordable, but for space to become a viable environment for commercial exercises, we need to have a reason to go up into space, to stay there, and to make money there.

Made In Space has already played an important role in some landmark moments that could herald a more varied space industry. The company sent up the first 3D printer to work off-planet, creating functional objects for use in space. This initial pilot was swiftly followed up with MIS installing a 3D printer on the International Space Station for manufacturing tools and materials on a weekly basis for NASA, government agencies, and commercial companies. Contracts such as this, as well as grants from NASA, have allowed MIS to remain self-sufficient with no outside capital investment. This autonomy is important, as it enables the company to keep focused upon long-term ambitious goals for the creation of new revolutionary industries, rather than providing an attractive mid-term exit for equity stake holders.

Beyond self-sufficiency, these initial contracts can also open up other potentially important near-term space manufacturing opportunities. MIS has a 2-year development contract with NASA to explore the manufacturing of larger objects and more efficient engineering of space objects. Currently, such objects like satellites and other observational units are built to survive launch and support their own weight rather than optimized for a space environment. With manufacturing in space, it removes weight constraints for satellite launches while allowing more useful parts to be custom-built in space. Recent technological innovations are further facilitating such efforts, with recent research suggesting that even fully functional electronic circuits could soon be 3D-printed.

A landmark for space commercialization: ZBLAN

While large-scale space manufacturing remains on the horizon for the time being, Made In Space is moving towards a crucial validation of the industrial space opportunity by creating viable materials for terrestrial use in outer space. Rods of glass are to be launched into space and, via additive manufacturing, turned into ZBLAN fiber optic cabling for terrestrial use cases such as long-haul telecoms, high-precision imagery, super-computing and medical lasers.

Imagery of reduced crystallization in ZBLAN optical fibers. Source: NASA

On earth, the gravitational pull effects the manufacturing process of optical fibers, creating imperfections and tiny flaws in cabling, which, when compounded, can result in lag. But in space, due to zero-gravity production, there is a reduction in crystallization and imperfections in the fiber, enabling higher degrees of purity, quality, and most importantly, commercial value – which can offset the cost of getting into space. Today, launch costs stand at around $20,000 per kilogram, but MIS is hoping to offset this expense by supplying ZBLAN optical fiber at scale, enabled by a process that is heavily reliant on automation and robotics. This process could be a watershed moment as the first industrial product made in space, opening the door to a range of private industrial innovators taking to space manufacturing.

The pilot ZBLAN project is commencing in December 2017, and Andrew Rush believes that within a year, a consistent supply to terrestrial customers can be arranged via regular trips back to earth as stowage on SpaceX Dragon Capsules. By the end of the decade, the company is targeting large scale trans-Atlantic class amounts of fiber. Away from the hyperbolic headlines, this simple value proposition could enable billions of dollars-worth of orbital industry.

Resource Efficiency: Is space going green?

There is a similar emphasis on resource efficiency in the space sector as there is in many terrestrial cleantech industrial verticals. This need for reusability is even more crucial in space, due to the scarcity of almost all resources. Made In Space has partnered with Braskem to develop additive materials using green polyethylene, allowing the ability to take waste plastic and introduce it into filament for further 3D printing. By using this material, MIS goes beyond reducing waste to creating a closed-loop manufacturing cycle, in which an almost infinite reusability cycle ensures that almost every tool (and in the future, larger structures) can be created, used and reused.

This technology highlights not only the important use cases in space, but also the huge potential of additive manufacturing from the angle of sustainability. As new additive manufacturing materials are developed, so are new use cases, meaning that both orbital and terrestrial manufacturing processes will continue to benefit from the exploration of such materials. To date, Made In Space has experimented with over 50 types of plastics that could be used in such processes.

 

If you want to hear more about how Made In Space is engendering a shift towards space manufacturing, CTO & co-founder, Jason Dunn, will be part of our Next-Gen Satellites & Spacetech session at our 2018 Cleantech Forum San Francisco on January 22-24.

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