Oct 31, 2019
We typically think of the manufacturing sector as being, well, earth-bound. Not so fast. Based on who you are asking, space-based technology manufacturing has moved beyond the mere hype phase.
It's starting to make waves at the onset of an investment growth curve. It's growing industry can be compared to the railroad boom of the early 19th Century in the United States. Who will be the next Cornelius Vanderbilt or tycoon of this new emerging space race? One bit of innovation technology could change the face of celestial startups as we know it: in-space manufacturing. The biggest challenge for in-space manufacturing and developing industries in space has been the sheer complex challenge of launching materials out of the atmosphere. It's costly, demanding, and extremely complex. Any given thing can go wrong. First of all, there are the natural laws of physics to contend with. Newer companies like Elon Musk's Space X and Blue Origin have tried to create new innovations and improvements on existing space launch methodologies. The sheer cost of the launch can eliminate many of these projects before they even start. When the financial hurdle is cleared, the next challenge is the unforgiving escape out of the atmosphere and gravity itself. There is so much pre-planning that must go into the shape of materials, dimensions, and their corresponding fragility or rigidity that will ensure their survival in a rocket launch mission to outer space. You can't manufacture materials that won't survive the mission out of the atmosphere. Innovative designs like the spring-style expanding antenna developed by NSLComm for communications satellites can provide workarounds for some of these limitations, but not all. But in-space manufacturing technology currently in development may have the potential to obviate both hard design and launch cost limits. A number of companies are already developing the capability to build spacecraft, research equipment, and advanced hardware in space using components and base materials transferred from Earth (much easier than transporting complex devices) and, potentially, mined locally from asteroids, planetary bodies or even decommissioned and non-functional older satellites. A company based out of Mountain View called Made In Space has made it its mission to create new innovative in-space manufacturing technologies and methods. Five years ago, Made In Space deployed the first-ever 3D printer into space to test its durability and ability to function in lower levels of gravity. This is a huge leap forward. The goal is to manufacture telescopes and the ability to improve upon existing spacecraft so that they could be fixed and built, real-time in outer space.
Depending on who you ask, space-based technology is past peak hype, at the beginning of its investment growth curve, or in an infrastructure-building phase akin to the railway industry in 1800s America. One emerging technology could change everything for startups and aerospace giants, however — in-space manufacturing.
One of the hard limits of building businesses in space is launching things to space. It’s a difficult problem to overcome, and the cost realities of making it happen are bound to some extent by physics, even with efficiencies made possible by new approaches from companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Blue Origin.
Launching objects from Earth to space doesn’t just carry a financial burden; escaping our gravity and atmosphere is not a gentle process, and there are limits to the fragility, shape and materials that can be used in payloads delivered to orbit on a rocket, even when covered by a protective fairing.