MADE IN SPACE. Ah, the 1970s — disco was in vogue, Moon landings NBD. Also, companies began throwing around the idea of manufacturing products in space. The reasoning was that the unique setting could perhaps cut costs in some way. At the time, though, the math just didn’t add up.
Now, two companies think they’ve found a product that actually might be cheaper to create off-world, and they’re both ready to give the process a shot.
THE PRODUCT. The companies are Made in Space and FOMS (Fiber Optic Manufacturing in Space). If you couldn’t guess from the name, they want to manufacture optical fibers — super-thin strands of glass that we gather into cables that transmit telecommunications data more — in space, or, more specifically, on board the ISS.
When we manufacture optical fibers on Earth, they can contain tiny imperfections that affect their ability to transmit data. Creating the fibers out of a glass called ZBLAN solves the problem, but it’s super fragile, which makes producing long strands difficult. When it cools, it also produces tiny crystals that impact the fibers’ performance.
Once you remove the stress of gravity from the equation, though, you no longer get those crystals and it’s far easier to produce longer strands.
READY FOR TESTING. Both Made in Space and FOMS already have systems they say are capable of producing ZBLAN fibers on the ISS. In fact, Made in Space has had a prototype of its device onboard the station since July. FOMS plans to send its own device up later this year.
On Earth, optical fibers cost about $1 million per kilogram to produce. If we can produce better fibers at or below that cost in space, it might not be long before you’re sending data over fibers that were created beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
READ MORE: Optical Fibre Made in Orbit Should Be Better Than the Terrestrial Sort [The Economist]
More on optical fibers: To Boost Internet Speeds, We’re Making Optical Fibers…in Space