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Home / Science / Off-Earth manufacturing is just beginning

Off-Earth manufacturing is just beginning

Space is a dangerous place for humans: Microgravity sets our fluids in motion and weakens our muscles, the radiation breaks through the DNA and the harsh vacuum outside is a ubiquitous threat.

But for materials that show incredible strength, transfer information almost lossless, create huge crystals, or even grow into organs, the hardness of the room can be the perfect construction zone.

As Space Costs Decline, More These materials can be inexpensively manufactured or studied in space. And soon more and more people will be carrying things from the planet. [Top 10 Strangest Things in Space]

"In general, we do things by subjecting them to a different environment," said Andrew Rush, President and CEO of Made In Space, a space production company. "We make food by cooking it in fire, heating it up and causing chemical reactions, we make steel by heating things up at high temperature and maybe, depending on the steel, [in a] high pressure environment." We can quench things Making things cold to make different materials or to improve these materials.

"Really, space-able materials are just another version of it, but instead of throwing something in an oven and put it at 1

,000 degrees Fahrenheit [540 degrees Celsius] or too heat Something, we take it into space, "he told Space.com.

In space, microgravity allows materials to grow without hitting walls, allowing them to mix and hold together even without traditional support [19659007] ZBLAN fibers, which are processed on the floor, have a tree-bark-like structure on the outside, while ZBLAN shows no crystallization in the room. “/>

Processed on the floor ZBLAN fibers reveal a tree bark Similar to str (19659009) Source: NASA

The International Space Station falls at a constant speed around the Earth, all experiencing a lack of gravity; At the station you are always in free fall. This environment, called microgravity, is convenient for growing things that need to expand evenly in each direction or to avoid contamination of the walls of a housing.

Microgravity is particularly interesting for people who manufacture materials for miniaturized devices and computers, Space.com said.

"The demand for high-tech solutions that require higher resolutions, faster processors, more bandwidth, higher precision, new materials, unique alloys, innovative processes, higher energy efficiency, more processes in a smaller volume and more sophisticated tools in general Materials and processes for manufacturing to atomic and molecular defects, "says Lynn Harper, director of integrative studies for the Space Portal Partnership Office at the NASA Ames Research Center in California.

The construction in weightlessness can reduce these defects. A prime example of earning money for something made in space today, a special type of fiber optic cable called ZBLAN, is a good example: when manufactured under weightlessness, the thin cable develops fewer tiny crystals that increase signal loss. Without these errors, the cable can be orders of magnitude better in the transmission of light over long distances, such as for telecommunications, laser and high-speed Internet.

The fiber is light enough – and can demand a high price – sending the materials to make it in space can pay off commercially. Made In Space sent a device in microwave format to the space station in December to test whether the cable is at least 300 feet (100 feet) long, and another company is also developing a space station test payload. (The researchers mentioned a third, who also had technology.)

"One of the challenges of earning money from space is that it's still pretty expensive to put things into space," said Alex MacDonald, chief business consultant at NASA Headquarters "Administrator's Office," Space.com said, "they're still dealing with thousands of dollars per kilogram. So, whatever you're going to do in space, which you're going to send to Earth, must be incredibly valuable, but also per unit mass. "[19659002]" The reason they're doing that is the huge payoff in the billions "If you could actually pull the fiber at least an order of magnitude better," says Dennis Tucker, materials scientist at Marshall Space at NASA's Flight Center in Alabama, who has been researching ZBLAN glass for decades, Space.com said, "There are many potential applications if we can do it. Fiber amplifiers, lasers for cutting, drilling and for surgery … Infrared imaging, remote IR. "

" I just want it to become the first real space- "Because the cost of shipping objects in the As space sinks further, the experimenters can envision a number of other scenarios in which the space station could play the key role in manufacturing, "he added.

For example, a substance called gallium nitride, which is used to make LEDs, is difficult to solidify simultaneously in large quantities because its two components do not always bond perfectly, resulting in defects. Reducing the movement of the molten liquid as the liquid becomes higher and lower due to gravity can reduce these defects – as can Randy Giles, Chief Researcher of., Who can prevent the highly reactive substance from touching the sides of the container Promotion of science in space. One day, such substances could benefit from creation in space.

The electrostatic levitation furnace, a device operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on the space station, is an example of the type of structure that could completely avoid a container, Giles said. The oven can melt and solidify materials while floating them with electrodes in place.

Experiments conducted years ago with NASA spacecraft have also given reasons for optimism. The researchers pulled a stainless steel disc called the Wake Shield Facility behind the shuttle and created a vacuum that is 1,000 to 10,000 times emptier than what is possible on Earth. Experimenters used this vacuum cleaner vacuum to make thinner, cleaner samples of materials such as semiconductors. (Much of the ground-based semiconductor devices are rejected due to contaminants that disrupt the atomic matrix.)

As Rush puts it, "If you have a piece of lint in your computer chip, it will not work very well."

Microgravity offers a promising manufacturing environment because it is free of convection, which sinks heavy material through a solution. In weightlessness, crystals can grow larger; In one experiment, crystals of proteins grew on average by 6 cubic millimeters, compared to 0.5 cubic millimeters here on Earth. Once these crystals are grown, they can be analyzed to determine the 3D structures of the proteins, which can provide new strategies for the discovery of new drugs.

Other crystals grow, such as those used to make medicines or those that can detect gamma rays and neutrons. in the room so that they are bigger and purer, the resulting material can become more valuable.

The same applies to metals. While metals made from a single element, such as iron, may be useful, they can gain strength, flexibility, or other specific features if they contain other elements. For example, the integration of carbon and small amounts of other metals with iron produces the much stronger and harder steel. Metals that are a combination of elements are referred to as alloys, and some can only form in a low gravity environment.

"Because you have no stratification due to density differences, heavy material does not sink to the ground and lightweight stuff [doesn’t] goes to the top – you can make alloys that are a homogeneous mixture of metals or minerals that are not normally in one so large size could be made on the ground, "said Harper. "And indeed, you might have some unique ones that would not produce alloy under any conditions on the ground."

  Metallic lenses do not become brittle in extreme cold, and could make such good materials for the gears of robots operating on icy planets or in space.

Metallic lenses do not crack in extreme cold and could therefore make good materials for the gears of robots operating on icy planets or in space.

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Because weightless materials do not crystallize as fast as the ZBLAN cable, you can even transform materials like metal into amorphous, glassy shapes. These metallic glasses can be molded at lower temperatures than ordinary metals, and their non-crystallized structure makes them particularly strong and corrosion resistant. (A metallic glass called Liquidmetal – developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the US Department of Energy and the California Institute of Technology – mixes three or more metals to obtain twice the thickness of titanium.) While some metal alloys and glasses are made The earth, others can – at least in large quantities – be developed only in the grip of weightlessness.

Such alloys and metallic glasses could one day create strong, lightly shaped space debris shields, panels, mirrors, and more. (19659002) Space offers this strange, double-edged construction zone: it allows researchers to test materials to see how They withstand a harsh environment of strong radiation and extreme temperature fluctuations, calm environment, gravity, compared to the earth.

"Space as we know it focuses on being a resource, it gives us GPS communication and Earth observation, the precious asset that comes back in digital form: data," Giles told Space.com. "While the material experiments conducted in the microgravity environment [are] return data informing people about the behavior and properties of materials and informing them how important it can be for space applications, it is also like a severe shock – Breast test that can be performed on materials that will have grounding applications.

"By removing convection, buoyancy and sedimentation, materials you bring back can also be your gold standard, with which you can compare and determine how feasible it is is to get a certain desired property, "he added.

People do not come in well in space over time, but it could be an ideal place to grow parts of them – organs, that is, can grow into larger networks without gravity pulling them into their containers, as it does on the Earth would happen.

"The idea of ​​how microgravity can help cells grow has been around for a long time; in fact, one of the dominant tools that medical pharmaceutical research uses today, the rotating wall vessel, was actually used as part of an 80s Space Shuttle Developed at NASA, MacDonald said

This ship was designed to simulate an aspect of microgravity on Earth through continuous rotation at just the right speed to counteract slow sedimentation of a substance by a nutrient solution.

"The cells are not smart, but they're adaptable," Harper said, "and when they touch." A side or surface gives them a message that's biologically misleading. "

  Tumor cells attached to microcarrier beads growing in a NASA bioreactor on Earth could trip in 56 days due to their rotating walls Growing cells in space offers similar benefits.

Tumor cells growing on microcarrier beads in a NASA bioreactor on Earth could grow three-dimensionally over 56 days due to the rotation of their container walls. Growing cells in space offer similar benefits.

Credit: Jearne Becker / University of South Florida

But the larger a sample becomes, the more energy one needs to spend on its cells not touching the ground – a disruption that can break up budding colonies. In free fall in space, such cells can form much larger tissues. Some recent work on the growth of tissue in space focuses on ensuring that engineered tissue has adequate blood supply; Otherwise they will die from the inside out. NASA is currently hosting a vascular tissue challenge that provides $ 500,000 in prizes for teams of researchers vascularized heart, lung, kidney, liver and muscle tissue more than 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) thick, in which most of the tissue is for Can survive for 30 days – An achievement that is currently not possible on earth. (You can read more about the challenge here.)

While it's certainly more speculative, this is actually another plausible reason for private companies to enter the space industry, MacDonald said.

"Organs are of course incredibly valuable, both in their ability to save lives and their costs in terms of the medical economy," said MacDonald. "They've started making companies experiment – not on the space station, but on parabolic flights."

It's hard to imagine routinely growing organs in space, but that's one of many ways to make money because it's less costly to put things into orbit.

"We know that we do not know all the applications of the space environment for product development, material processing, product refinement," said Rush. "And we did not research it, we did not explore the possibilities there because of lack of access and high costs, but now we're cornering, I think it's very, very, very exciting time to really explore it. "

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Credit: Alpha Space

Another source of enthusiasm for space manufacturing is building things for space that are never constrained by the pull of gravity – or the crushing thrust of a rocket launcher ,

The International Space Station already houses 3D printers that make Made in Space tools the space station. But the company's vision is much larger: large-scale structures, such as space telescopes or solar cells, could be printed in space instead of being folded to launch into orbit. And visitors from other worlds could someday use the locally available resources to print shelters and other components and travel only with the digital blueprints.

Building in space requires a sound understanding of how materials react in space and how to conserve resources. and a rethinking of what can be used in a 3D printer or as a foundation for materials made in space, the researchers said Space.com.

"For me, the exciting part of seeing everything around me as a potential starting point is to develop new ways of thinking, and this thinking and paradigm shift has a huge impact," said Niki Werkheiser, NASA's Space Production Manager, to Space.com. "Whether it's in-situ resources, our food, foam, plastic bags, whatever is around us, I'll look at how, how can I recycle or recycle? And it requires combining and not just understanding the machine's capabilities but the properties and properties of materials for what you need to do. "

But whether material research on a microgravity level is built for the Earth or for space, this research field does strange and wonderful things that have never been in that set or seen in this quality on the ground.

"There's so much potential to do things in this area now that we could not do it before, and now it's not just dreams and ideas – it happens," said MacDonald. "There are facilities in orbit that you can use, and you can think about improving yourself, and you can think about developing your own facilities – it's a bit like small satellites 10 years ago. People could see it I'm very excited I'm starting to do experiments, but I think the really exciting stuff is yet to come. "

Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains . Follow us @Spacedotcom Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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