SpaceX has been getting a lot of attention since its historic launch of recycled rockets. The cost of getting people and technology into space has never been cheaper. This is opening up an entirely new world of possibilities for companies across a variety of different fields. One surprising development coming out of this news is an increased interest in manufacturing in space.
There are a lot of benefits of moving operations to space that can significantly benefit certain types of manufacturing. Space offers the closest physical approximation to a vacuum (something that is impossible on Earth), solar power only limited by what's collecting it, extreme temperatures, and perhaps most importantly, microgravity. These factors can expand the capability of what manufacturers could accomplish on Earth. Companies are already vying to be among the first to be granted the opportunity to create in space, with exciting prospects across a variety of fields — especially in medicine.
The makers of a revolutionary stem cell printer, nScrypt, are working with two other companies, Bioficial Organs, and Techshot to begin printing real hearts from patients' stem cells on the International Space Station (ISS) by 2019.
3D printing hearts in this way is not entirely possible on Earth. Researchers have to devise a scaffolding onto which the material can be printed, but it then must dissolve or be removed without damaging the printed structure. However, it is possible to print without a scaffold in space. “If we try to do it on Earth, it would look pretty for about a second and then just kind of melt all over the table,” says Eugene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot. “It would look like you just poured a Jell-O mold and then tried to immediately serve it—it would glob on your plate into this gelatinous mess.”
As you may have seen, most 3D printing needs to be done in layers. The object is built from the ground up one (effectively) 2-dimensional layer at a time. In space, the lack of gravity allows objects to actually print in 3D. Not only that, but the speed of the printing could be up to 100 times faster. For example, the gravity aboard the ISS will allow the printed structure to retain its shape as stem cells work to grow the tissue of a transplantable heart. The hearts could be ready in as little as 45 days. With the average median wait time of a heart transplant being four months in the United States, printing in space could save countless lives.
“People are getting tired of seeing Yoda figures being printed,” says nScrypt CEO Kenneth Church. “They're saying ‘You promised me a heart. Where is it?’ And what I'm going to tell you is, ‘It’s in space.’”
Manufacturing in space isn't limited to just saving lives either: more efficient fiber optics cables and solar panels are possible when they are made in space. The future of manufacturing is launching toward the stars, it is clear that even the sky is no longer the limit.