Several years ago, some commercial space advocates believed they had finally found the long-awaited killer application for space manufacturing: optical fibres. The researchers said a type of glass called ZBLAN could be used in microgravity to produce fibers with much fewer defects than fibers produced on Earth, resulting in reduced signal attenuation. These fibers could be the perfect space-manufactured product: high value but low mass and with increasing demand due to their insatiable appetite for bandwidth.
However, the experiments in the production of ZBLAN fiber did not turn into commercial production. At the recent International Space Station Research and Development Conference, scientists said that producing such fibers in space was more difficult than expected.
“The challenge is translating this process into a microgravity environment where heating rates are different, cooling rates are different, there are changes in material properties and some other effects that will take you away a little bit,” said Amrit D, CEO of Absidal, a fiber optic startup. and other photonics technologies.
ZBLAN fibers are the latest in a long line of products touted as demonstrating the potential for fabrication in space, utilizing microgravity and vacuum conditions to create items that cannot also be manufactured, or ever, on Earth. Over the past few decades, companies have proposed making unusual alloys, semiconductor wafers, protein crystals and even ball bearings in space, but none of them have succeeded in the market.
Dee said it’s too early to give up on ZBLAN fibres. “We need to iterate around that to perfect the process,” he said of those problems that produce such fibres. “We just need to be patient and get over the problem.”
Despite this, patience will be a challenge for NASA and companies alike as they work to transition from the International Space Station to commercial space stations by the end of the decade. The companies operating at those stations not only have to design and develop them but also have to discover the customer mix for them.
NASA has made it clear that while it will be a major customer for stations it supports development through the LEO Commercial Destinations Program, it does not wish to be the only customer. Companies operating at those stations expect to have a mix of customers at their stations, including commercial and government researchers, space tourists and manufacturers.
For now, these companies remain optimistic that they will find clients that include the aerospace industry, even if you’re not sure right now who they will be. “We all know how to build space stations. That’s not the hard part,” Christian Mander, executive vice president of space solutions at Axiom Space, said during one of the conference sessions. “The hardest part is building some of these markets.”
Rick Mastracchio, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, agrees. “It’s a small step for us to build a space station, so to speak,” he said, citing the company’s expertise in modules and spacecraft. “Building the space station business is the other half of the challenge, and probably the hardest, in my opinion.”
Space station developers have said they are open to more unconventional markets for their stations beyond the biomedical materials and applications they have long touted for space. “It could just be the singularity of making a product in space,” said Janet Kavandy, president of Sierra Space. “You can make a fragrance out of the flowers that are grown in the botanical environment there.”
De Apsidal says a breakthrough can still be achieved with ZBLAN fibres, given enough effort. “Your successes sometimes come very suddenly,” he said. “You can see very big improvements coming in very quickly.”
However, space station developers are casting a vast net of potential applications for their stations in the event that traditional ones fall. Kavandi offered another unusual use for a space station, producing a product in higher demand than optical fibres. “You could have a distillery there.”
Jeff Faust writes on space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His column Foust Forward appears in every issue of the magazine. This column appeared in the August 2022 issue.