Standing two miles from Boca Chica Beach in South Texas is a 55-meter tall uncanny test article built by SpaceX. It’s no surprise that most watchers had believed it’s the construction of a large water tower during the project’s early stage. Starhopper doesn’t look like any current generation rocket by any measure or shape. Most strange of all, it’s made of stainless steel – a material that has largely fallen out of use for propellant tanks in statistics. With a minimum of 10.5% chromium content, steel’s rigidity is not in any doubt. But the alloy’s resultant force due to gravity makes it highly unsuitable for flight structures.
Weight is on a premium scale in rocket science; every kilogram is very important and engineers have, for years, sort for several innovative ways of reducing waste. In fact, only about 1% of a rocket’s entire weight is wanted in space. In other words, a lot of energy is wasted to launch a few kilograms of payload into space. This energy waste, pollution, and many other factors are contributing to the inevitable need for space manufacturing.
Elon Musk’s latest push for space civilization with unconventional design in Starship is a loud reminder that research entails scouting all possible ways, including methods considered irrelevant in the past. Most importantly, it’s one of the space technologies inspiring campaigns of moving factories to space. Not just for the purpose of manufacturing space-bound structures but some of the products we need here on Earth. But do we really need to move our factories to space? Is it going to be for luxury or just to grow our knowledge of the universe?
The Benefits of Space Industrialization
Imagine walking into Tiffany & Co, for instance, to buy a diamond-encrusted gold chain manufactured in space. Of course, it should have no physical difference from those manufactured here. But you must be ready to spend extremely more. However, this commercial quest is far from the primary goal of moving our factories to space.
Civilization on earth is bringing a lot of changes. Aside from environmental degradation which is threatening the existence of many species, including humans, the limited resources and diminishing returns on earth is largely restraining technology potential. Space has mountains of untapped potentials considering that the environment is largely different and not subjected to a large amount of gravity. The things we struggle to manufacture on earth such as managing lots of harmful products are not issues in space. In fact, it’s gradually becoming clear that the future of industrialization could be vastly different if we can master how to manufacture in space with minimal risk and less expensive transportation.
For instance, manufacturing the exotic forms of fiber optics technology such as ZBLAN is marred by gravity during the formation process. Gravity causes inconsistency in the crystal formation and creates a tree-bark-like structure on the product, which results in weaker signal when deployed. ZBLAN formation requires a microgravity environment and that can be achieved by moving the manufacturing process to space. We don’t need to worry about the cost of producing it since the material is already a fortune. A kilogram of pure ZBLAN can fetch over a million dollars.
Space manufacturing will also revolutionize the medial industry. The remarkable efforts made in biological 3D printing which allows scientists to print fully functional human organs, such as the heart, from a patient’s stem cell could be made practical under microgravity environment. Just like the fiber optics, the main challenge is gravity. 3D-printing of hard tissues requires the stem cell and nutrient mixture (ink) to be consistent in a liquid state. However, achieving this on Earth is only possible by the use of scaffold to support the ink. But scientists are yet to figure out how the scaffold can be removed without damaging the printed organ. Printing in space takes away the entire challenge of ink inconsistency under gravity. One major benefit is that patients whose new organ was printed using their own stem cell would not be required to take immune suppressant for the rest of their life or queue up for organ donation.
In addition, 3D printing on earth is by far inefficient – done by stacking layers of a material on top of each other. With specially designed 3D printers, the process can be improved by 100 times in space.
Another known useful application of microgravity environment is in the production of super-efficient solar panels. Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) is the world’s most efficient solar material, with almost 40 percent extra efficiency compare to the silicon-based panels. The only challenge is that growing the crystals produces lots of toxic waste such as arsenic. In a 1999 study: “Outer space-grown semi-insulating GaAs and its applications,” published in Springer, Lanying Lin of Chinese academy of sciences and other scientists found that space-grown GaAs cells were 10,000 times better in quality than those produced on Earth. That means there would be no need to take up a large area of land for solar farms. Lots of solar power would be harnessed using a small portion of land.
The freezing conditions in space could as well be leveraged in manufacturing products that require extremely low temperature to build, such as circuits. According to experts, making a single circuit requires 8,300 liters (2,200 gallons) of water for the cleaning and cooling process. Imagine the volume of water we throw into chip making yearly. We produce over 900 billion circuits each year.
Billionaires are tackling the challenges
Space is a dangerous place for humans. The condition (vacuum) we have deemed suitable for industrialization is actually a huge threat to life. Radiation out there tears through DNA and microgravity weakens our muscles and sets our fluids wandering. We are yet to consider the cost of moving the products. Thanks to upcoming innovations like SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s reusable spacecraft.
A few months ago, Blue Origin’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos proposed a constellation of space stations similar to those from late Physicist Gerard O’Neill. Affirming that our home (Earth) would not be enough to support increasing human population in the future, the former professor at Princeton University proposed the construction of cylindrical structures for space habitation that will harvest sunlight to grow crops and produce artificial gravity by rotating with centrifugal force. In Bezos’ massive vision, heavy industries and mining will move to space while “Earth is zoned residential and light industry.”
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk who is, at the moment, focused on affordable interplanetary flights, in pursuit of making life multi-planetary.
How do we get materials for Space manufacturing?
Asteroids and other cosmic bodies out there in our solar system contain metals and some precious resources, including ingredients to make rocket fuel. Hence, space industrialization will crown Earth the receiving end instead of using up the resources which looks inevitable.
Some space agencies, such as JAXA have successfully collected samples from asteroids, indicating there’s less challenge in getting materials for manufacturing. Spacecraft could mine water ice from asteroids by concentrating lasers on them. The piece of ice can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen which is essentially the ingredients for a type of rocket fuel.
Five years ago, a Silicon Valley startup, Made In Space, Inc. became the first company to 3D print object in space. Last year NASA contracted the company to build Vulcan – a robotic space manufacturing system – that can build “precisely-machine metal parts” using more than thirty different materials. Made In Space is planning to 3D print more massive products such as housing for life support.
Experts are predicting a boom in new technologies once space exploration becomes more commercialized, with the cost of moving the products back to Earth more affordable. We could reduce the high negative impact of industrialization in the environment and produce more quality products from clean energy by beating the current challenges of moving factories to Space.