Acme Space Widgets Inc. 

  • In orbit manufacturing is becoming a realty for a wide variety of products
  • Numerous benefits from the microgravity and natural vacuum of space
  • Applications from drug development to industrial engineering
  • Made possible by a step change lower in launch costs
  • UK Space strategy points the way for industry and academia

Throughout retail history consumers have been prepared to pay a premium based on provenance. Think of Champagne vs sparkling wine, Cuban cigars or Speyside Whisky.  For good reason people place an intangible premium on items from particular locations such as German made cars, Italian design or fashion made in France. These places have built their reputations over years and in some cases centuries and it is rare for a new location to join the list.  However, one new up-and-coming region is widely considered to be completely out of this world – made in Space.

Reuse, recycle…

Up to now the focus of in-space manufacture has been for use in-situ. Better to 3D print that new spanner than have one sent up from Earth. Taking existing materials and recycling them for new uses saves huge cost and begins to put in place the capability to repair and repurpose existing satellites. Even reusing some of the 190,000 kgs of material humans have already left of the moon could be helpful. Even mining the moon and asteroids for materials become natural, if somewhat distant, logical extensions, as well as eventually providing potential new sources of rare Earth minerals.

An infinite clean room

Avoiding the huge costs of fighting gravity and atmospheric friction makes perfect sense, but some entrepreneurs are planning to do this only to then return the manufactured items back for sale at home. They aim to take advantage of the unusual properties of the microgravity and ‘hard’ vacuum freely available off-planet. The combination of these factors provides some significant advantages that are difficult or impossible to recreate down here. The enduring directional presence of gravity impacts everything we make and do and presents challenges for certain sensitive processes such as the mixing of alloys or compounds, or the growth of crystals. Even the potential for printing living tissue for replacement organs is simpler and more successful in space where there is no gravity to collapse these delicate and intricate objects before they are fully formed. The Earth’s atmosphere can also pollute or contaminate chemical or industrial processes, including the creation of semiconductors. Recreating a perfect vacuum on earth is expensive and difficult to maintain, but is the default setting outside our atmosphere.

100x better?

Although this nascent industry has only limited potential in the foreseeable future, it nonetheless offers exciting possibilities across a surprisingly wide range of applications. These are helpfully outlined in detail in the website ‘‘ and include such essential categories as chocolate, perfume and beer! But beyond the frivolities there are numerous areas offering genuine advancements. The ability to grow larger and more perfectly formed crystals, for example, will be of huge benefit in areas such as drug development and even some industrial processes. (Did you know we have been growing single crystal turbine blades for over a decade?) In the near term one of the most attractive commercial applications appears to be fibre optics. Microgravity allows the creation of close to perfectly uniform, uncontaminated fibres which are 10-100x more effective than their traditional counterparts, and allows significant savings with fewer signal boosters required across the network. This multi-billion dollar industry is understandably the focus of much attention.

Dramatically lower launch costs

While at present the costs of pushing the materials into space remain high, they are coming down quickly, mostly as a result of the success of the partially reusable rockets from SpaceX. In the 1990s launch costs averaged about $20,000 per kg to low earth orbit (in today’s money) and were almost entirely government funded. However, since private enterprise has entered the ring the per kg cost has fallen significantly with the Falcon 9 from SpaceX, for example, costing around $5,000/kg if you are prepared to share a ride with other customers. This may still have much further to fall though with SpaceX’s new heavy lifting ‘Starship’ rocket aiming for launch costs of ~$100/kg. This would be achieved by reusing the entire craft, including the boosters for multiple missions. With the payload reputed to be 110 tonnes it will far outstrip any competitors for sheer scale.

UK innovation

Given the huge long term potential for this burgeoning era of manufacturing it was great to see the recent successful fund raising by UK start-up Space Forge. This innovative Welsh business plans to offer ‘microgravity-as-a-service’ and become an outsourced manufacturing operation. Their £7.7m seed round was 4 times over-subscribed and demonstrates the current appetite for innovative space-tech investment opportunities. The UK’s National Space Strategy in combination with successful funding schemes such as the SPRINT and Satellite Applications Catapult are helping to bring ideas to life, and we aim to play our part in connecting them with the right investors for the next stage of the journey.