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Space: The New Manufacturing Frontier

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As a naturally clean vacuum with extreme temperatures and an absence of night, space offers a unique environment for manufacturing, and utilising these conditions enables the creation of superior quality materials, unique structures, and innovative products.

In addition to taking advantage of these optimum conditions, in-space manufacturing capability could enable longer and more sustainable exploration missions, with on-demand manufacturing of spare parts and tools as required, or more simply put, replacing the parts that were either broken or in some cases forgotten!

History of In-Space Manufacturing

Despite how futuristic the notion of manufacturing in space might sound, it has been done for some time.

The Wake Shield Facility (WSF) was a science platform run by NASA which deployed a robotic arm in front of the shuttle which created an ultra-vacuum behind it. This was used to create semiconductors including gallium arsenide, pharmaceuticals, and other composites.

Following this, the International Space Station (ISS) came online which focused on life sciences including pharmaceuticals, protein crystals, and drug development.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in the history of in-space manufacturing came from Made In Space, who produced a fibre optic cable that was 100 times more efficient than anything that can be produced on Earth, commonly known as ZBLAN, a fluoride glass optical fiber. This glass fiber offers a significant improvement for transmission of data due to its incredibly clear and bubble-free structure and there is not a terrestrial equivalent that can match its performance.

Benefits of Manufacturing in Space 

  • As a current leader in this field, the UK has a significant opportunity to be at the forefront of in-space manufacturing.
  • Space offers environments for manufacturing that cannot be recreated on earth or can only be recreated at a significant cost.
  • Enhanced materials of superior quality such as fibre optic cables, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals can be created in space.
  • Manufacturing in space means larger structures can be put into orbit as they can be built in space and therefore, aren’t constrained by current launch capabilities.
  • In-space manufacturing could allow for longer and more sustainable space missions, potentially enabling us to visit remote destinations such as Mars without the need for resupply missions.
  • Ability to refurbish, repair and recycle space structures in orbit.
  • Funding is available from the UK space agency and ESA for companies working in this field. The UK Government has also shown an interest in this sector.

Challenges Faced

  • Significant progress to be made before manufacturing in space can be done in volume.
  • Significant investment required to enhance these technologies.
  • Currently restricted by the carrying capacity of launch vehicles.
  • New mechanisms of returning material and products to Earth need to be both tested and proven.
  • There is currently a skills shortage in the UK.

In Space Manufacturing Technology

Organisations with current or developing technologies for in-space manufacturing include Space Forge, an early-stage start-up developing reusable manufacturing satellites, and Bartolomeo, a platform on the International Space Station that enables the hosting of external payloads in low-Earth orbit.

Space: The New Manufacturing Frontier – Webinar

On 15 July 2020, the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult hosted a webinar to explore the opportunities that space presented for manufacturing activity.

The event, which took place during the first-ever Wales Technology Week, featured a variety of speakers with expertise on manufacturing in space and highlighted the massive opportunity that space presents as ‘The New Manufacturing Frontier’. 

Throughout the webinar, the below speakers from across the space and manufacturing industry gave an overview of the opportunities that space presents for manufacturing and how the sector could grow in the future.

  • Alistair McGibbon, Head of Collaborative R&D, CSA Catapult
  • Josh Western, Co-Founder & CEO, Space Forge
  • Advenit Makaya, Advanced Manufacturing Engineer, ESA
  • Yannik Jego, Bartolomeo Lead Sales Manager, Airbus Defence & Space
  • Will Richardson, Co-Founder & CEO, Wayland Additive
  • Steve Gibson, Senior Business Development Manager for Civil and Military Space, Lockheed Martin
  • Paul Gillespie, Managing Director, Deep Tech Practice
  • Will Dick-Cleland, Space Lead, Alloyed
  • Rajan Bedi, CEO, Spacechips
  • Liz Seward, Senior Strategist for Space Systems, Airbus
  • Ole Kock, Technical Authority, Teledyne
  • Chris Brunskill, Head of UK Space Programmes, D-Orbit

Summary

The in-space manufacturing webinar was a huge success, thank you to everyone that joined us and engaged with the speakers – we look forward to hosting more webinars over the coming months, and will have a follow up webinar highlighting some the new products being developed today in space, for the benefit of those on Earth as well in space.

As an area that we as a country are at the forefront of, in-space manufacturing offers a significant opportunity for the UK as a field to be leaders in, many companies in this space are currently seeking private investment. 

If the environment space offers could give an advantage for the manufacture of a product you make or aspire to make – we can help facilitate introductions with the right people to make to happen and provide technical advice regarding access to space and testing capabilities.

Get in touch with us on 01235 428 199 or email info@sa.catapult.org.uk.   


Michael Curtis-Rouse
Head of Manufacturing for Space

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