| submitted by /u/1maccabees1_15
So who are they?
Made in Space is a young, tiny, itty-bitty little Silicon Valley space company but of massive importance, that are pulling off something we didn't think would be viable for at least 50 years when it comes to outer space. In-space manufacturing. But that's not all!
What's the big deal?
You have heard about crazy millionaires trying to mine asteroids. Old news but it's got awhile to go. Plenty of people believe that could be a viable space business and that it will eventually happen. But, the idea that we could ever do anything on Mars, or the Moon or even space itself and actually sell it as a product on Earth, as a profitable business, seems pretty unlikely any time soon. Most people think that will come way later, perhaps not even in our lifetime, because it's just too expensive to send stuff up there, build it, bring it back that there's no way you could realistically turn a profit, right? Wrong!
Made in Space are well on their way to achieving just that. They have 2 viable business plans:
Build a product in space, with material sent from Earth, that can actually be brought back and sold on Earth for profit, despite all the costs involved. Make no mistake, this is NOT conceptual. These guys actually have real hardware on the ISS and 3D printing things and are on the verge of pulling this off now. The economics actually work out.
In-space automated infrastructure building. This is in the design stages at this point, but just around the corner.
The first part. Even with the insane launch costs everyone is aware of, Made in Space found a product they can create in space and sell on Earth at a profit. They don't plan on doing this in 50, 40, 30, 20 or even 10 years. But now. This year, even with today's crazy multi-million dollar transportation costs. In fact their 3D printer is already in space on the ISS and they have already tested it, after having tested it in Earth's atmosphere on a zero G plane ride.
You can see the original zero G experiment here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyV10h6esPs
Pretty cool! Looks like a lot of fun. The actual 3D printer was launched on a SpaceX rocket in 2014 but a lot of people never really realized the importance of what they have been doing for the past couple of years.
An image of the 3D printer that's on the ISS sponsored by Lowe's: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56d9b0528259b560ad38cde1/58ab13bdb8a79b717862a183/58ab13e586e6c0c373a5479b/1490727058117/AMF+Cover+Image+Close.jpg?format=1000w
One of their parts printed on the ISS: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/56d9b0528259b560ad38cde1/58ab13bdb8a79b717862a183/5911c213f5e2315080078a9d/1494336020221/astro_butch.jpg?format=750w
So what is it?
Well it turns out they discovered that a high quality type of fiber optic cable(ZBLAN) is extremely valuable here on Earth for major server farms and telecommunication companies. More valuable than its weight in gold apparently.
They also figured out that ONLY zero G allows for the production of this fiber optic cable at purity levels that can't be done on Earth or anywhere inside a gravity well. Earth's gravity adds impurities to the cable during the extraction process, whereas if you were to manufacture it in zero G, you end up with one of the most pure forms of fiber optic cable money can buy. That difference in purity turns out to really be worth a fortune.
Here's an image that shows the comparison: http://www.popsci.com/sites/popsci.com/files/styles/large_1x_/public/images/2017/03/zblan1.jpg?itok=5jtuhyAZ&fc=50,50
It also turns out there are a few major customers that really want to buy some even at the prices it's going to cost. All they have to do, is make it and bring it back. They can ship the raw materials in a compact container up to the space station, manufacture it on the ISS, then use SpaceX's Dragon to return it to Earth. And because their product is fairly light, in terms of mass and shipping costs, the economics actually work out. The first test run is scheduled to happen later this year. They will analyze their cable, and if it turns out as good as they hope, well…they plan on mass producing it and selling it. They have partnered with Thorlabs, a well established fiber optic cable manufacturer, to help them with ZBLAN preforms and to help them mass produce the cable.
And thus, if successful, they will kickstart an Earth-to space-to Earth manufacturing business for profit. How about that!
Why is this so important?
Well first of all, if you really want to have permanent outer space presence, then products like this that actually depend on space for it to exist is one of the ways to ensure that happens. If you can find a product that can only be done in space, and you can profit from it, especially here on Earth, you have a reason to always want to be up there. A profitable, self-sustaining one. And you have a pretty large customer base on Earth compared to outer space. We have a lot of humans and companies here that can buy things. Not so many up there right now. Simple logic, right?
Second, you are also going to need infrastructure, especially after the ISS is decommissioned, thus spurring another motive beyond human tourism, fuel depots, or resource depots to try and build things in space. Their printers have to be inside some sort of structure. So here comes the 2nd part of their master plan.
The second part. The company is also working on at least 2 variations of orbital robotic space construction workers, creatively called Archinauts. These little guys plan on using parts built by the company's 3D printers in space, to manufacture structures much bigger than themselves in orbit. They are little cylindrical satellites, with little robotic arms on top, whose insides can be filled with parts, fly to a desired orbit, then pick up, connect and rearrange the parts they will hold in their stomachs into giant space structures. Like a spider building a spider web much larger than itself. Infrastructures like a giant solar reflector. Or a giant skeleton lattice that can then be filled in with walls for habitats, etc.
Made in Space will ship raw material, build the 3D parts in space, then the robots will assemble them per design request. So you basically will be able to "order up" a design at their headquarters and figure out what type of structure can be built using their printers and assembled using these robots. You can figure out the material cost, their cost to use their construction system, ship it up there, and their 3D printers and Archinauts will do the rest and build your structure. So what could you think up to build using this method?
You can view a couple of demonstrations here:
Archinaut: Ulysses https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvwXgZhrr-s
Archinaut: Dilo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opd235EgqG8
Why this matters?
I don't think I need to explain why that is important, but just in case, I will anyway. To be able to have a permanent human presence and economies in space, we are going to need in-space architecture. Lots of it, and lots of different types. It can't all look like cylindrical beer cans. Not very useful for all applications. That's quite limiting and as long as we ship stuff in cylindrical rocket payload fairings, limited by volume and shape, some in-space assembly is going to be necessary. This technology may not initially be used for human habitats or massive space stations, but it's a step towards that, much like SpaceX is using the Falcon 9 as a test bed to build on, while making a profit and sustaining their business, to create their next larger rockets like the Falcon Heavy and eventual Mars rocket.
So let's give these guys a big round of applause. They came out of nowhere and accelerated the future by about 50 years right under our nose! All without the requirement of needing to be a billionaire first. Just a brilliant idea that might make them billionaires, or at least millionaires, in the process. They turned the equation on its head and are proving this can be achieved today! Bravo Made in Space!
It's time to start brainstorming. What else can be produced in Zero G that can't be done on Earth? Could we think of other products that can create viable business plans today or in the near future with launch prices coming down?
I hope this is the appropriate place for this. If not please redirect me. My 7 year old son has loved the solar system and space intensely for the past 3 years. He has a solar system hanging in his room, posters with planetary info, reads his grandparents entire books on mars, Jupiter, Earth etc and can't get enough. He hopes to one day make Pluto a planet again (Pluto is/was his favorite). This kid has forgotten more than I know about space.
I want to continue to feed his passion but I feel like the books we get him aren't enough. Are there other resources I should be looking at you would recommend? It can be above a 7 year Olds level, as most of the stuff we read already is. I just want to support him and looking for outside help!