Low-Earth orbit, the atmospheric layer relatively close to Earth’s surface, provides a more suitable environment than the planet for manufacturing certain materials, including semiconductors and artificial proteins. Thanks to inherent characteristics like microgravity and high-vacuum quality, low-Earth orbital fabrication could allow some production at higher quantities and qualities. A range of companies in the space economy are looking at how they can gain advantages by removing Earth-based constraints such as gravity. Certain manufacturing processes are restricted by gravity, which yields undesirable effects that often require workarounds. For example, proteins produced under gravity’s force are dimensionless blobs that are difficult to analyze. Reducing gravity helps proteins to grow into uniform, 3D structures. Semiconductor manufacturing could benefit as its processes require low pressure and hyper-clean conditions to prevent contamination. Orbital fabrication enables higher-quality products to be produced more economically than they could be on Earth. Varda Space Industries is building a spacecraft that takes advantage of space’s microgravity and acts as a platform for product manufacturing. The company plans to launch production facilities and materials into orbit via commercial space vehicles, manufacture products in orbit, and return the items in a reentry capsule enabled by NASA heat-shield technologies. Redwire, another space-manufacturing developer, announced an in-space technology that can facilitate growth of small-batch, protein-based pharmaceuticals. NASA selected Space Tango, a Lexington, Kentucky–based outfit, and its partners to establish an orbital lab development and manufacture of regenerative medicines, including stem cells and artificial retinas. Space-based manufacturing will change how we think of the factory floor and remove constraints inherent to terrestrial-based production. Pharmaceuticals produced in space could have higher purity than those made on Earth. Alloys could be free of gravity-compacted sedimentation. Crystal growth in microgravity could be more consistent. As orbital transport costs decrease, in-space manufacturing may become not only a means for producing higher-quality products but a cheaper alternative. Space will provide economic advantages and foster innovations and inventions not currently possible on our home planet.
The new Space Race