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Reimagining Space: An Introduction to In-Space Manufacturing

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In this article for our Reimagining Space series, we are looking at the future possibilities for In-Space Manufacturing, what it means to manufacture in space and what the future could hold for us if we move towards utilising those possibilities for Earth.

To many people, the concept of being able to make things in space will sound like something straight out of science fiction. But the truth is, a lot more happens on-orbit than we might realise.

Take the International Space Station for example. It has been on orbit for just over two decades, and is a hive of activity, home to numerous experiments that can’t be done on Earth.

Space tourism is often in the headlines, as companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others compete to be leaders in the emerging market. However, the opportunities that are being unveiled in manufacturing could be what have the most significant impact and benefit to planet Earth.

As we explore different ways to achieve net zero, and push to become a greener society, we cannot deny the fact that the increasing demand being placed on manufacturers is part of what is causing us the most damage. Could using space to its maximum potential be the key to saving the planet?

THE ISSUE

The crux of the proposition is that on earth we’re limited by the nature of the planet to manufacture new things.

And that’s primarily because we have a wet, heavy atmosphere and gravity. But by going into space, you can remove these major obstacles to manufacturing.

But if you move production processes to space you can also create materials, which can be many times the quality and efficiency of those that you can currently produce on earth.

Not only do we have to consider the continued impact of manufacturing on our environment, we must also consider that we could be reaching our limit as to what can actually be achieved in terms of technological advances due to the conditions on Earth.

THE SOLUTION

In theory, manufacturing in space works just like it does on Earth. A facility is developed, and that facility takes resources as an input, and then produces something more valuable as an output.

The space environment is very different from Earth, and we can produce things there that we couldn’t otherwise produce on Earth. The key factor here is gravity. If we take gravity out of the equation, things change dramatically.

For example, if you want to grow something on Earth, whatever it is that you’re growing will be growing against the force of gravity, things are pulled down, and we see sedimentation effects. In space, nothing is obstructing the growth and therefore things can grow faster, in a more uniform way and more precisely, in many cases. We also don’t see what we call phase separation in space, which means if you mix oil and water they don’t divide themselves into layers.

For use cases there is an important factor that we need to take into account generally which is mass and volume. So for whatever you’re producing in space and returning to Earth, you need to think about how heavy it is, and what is it going to cost to bring it back and how does that relate to the value that I can sell it for?

If you want to produce something in space right now and return it to Earth, in principle, your goal is to produce something that is ideally really small and lightweight, but at the same time very valuable, because that’s the success formula to really being able to bring things into orbit, have value added and then bring them down and still be profitable. Fibre optics are a great example, because you can produce these at a much higher quality in the microgravity environment. The crystals grow much better, you have much better performance and you can return the end-products to earth and sell it at a considerable premium.

But while manufacturing in space for Earth presents its own set of challenges, there are separate issues to consider when it comes to making things in space for space, especially for larger structures. If the goal is to explore more commercial opportunities, then we need to find ways of carrying out large scale projects more efficiently.

If we want to build a larger structure in space, like the International Space Station, we are limited by the size of the elements that can be launched at one time. You can only build structures which fit in rocket launch bays and while they are big – in some cases, you can fit almost a double decker bus in them – they’re not actually that huge. If you use an analogy of effectively trying to build a house, consider that in order to build the house, you could only have each brick delivered one at a time, it will take you a very, very long time.

THE FUTURE

With each industrial revolution has come innovation that has shaped our world beyond what we could have imagined. And with access to space and opportunities for SMEs looking dramatically different in the next 5-7 years, this could prove to be one of the most jaw dropping revolutions yet.

One of the most exciting areas is human exploration and the type of in-space manufacturing needed to facilitate that. The next step is to go back to the moon, to be in orbit around the moon, and then to have habitation modules, perhaps for astronauts to visit the moon to live on the moon. And then Mars is the step after that. And to have people living on the moon or on Mars will absolutely need for much of the infrastructure to be manufactured in space and on the surface.

If we build infrastructure on the moon, we can use the sand, called regolith, on its surface to construct buildings and we can also extract oxygen from it. If you mix oxygen with hydrogen, it could even be used as fuel so we could launch other rockets from the moon to go to Mars.

The process of using the resources that you find in your native environment is called in situ resource utilisation (ISRU), and this is really at the very centre of the future manufacturing industry in space.

This article is a summary of discussions made during the recording of our In-Orbit Podcast Series.