What if the sticker on your favorite product said "Made in Space?"
A Mountain View, Calif.-based startup last week revealed new breakthroughs in its quest to build in-space factories that will orbit the Earth and pump out products that are too difficult or expensive to make at home. The technology is expected to revolutionize space exploration by allowing scientists access to better tools in space, and also provide people on Earth with unique space-made products such as improved fiber optic cables.
"In-space manufacturing and assembling has been the stuff of science fiction and the dream of the industry for almost the entire existence of the industry," said Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush. "But now, for the first time, we're making these really transformative steps toward making that a reality."
In June, Made In Space successfully completed the first test of its manufacturing equipment in a vacuum chamber that simulates the microgravity environment of space — a major milestone, Rush said. The company's partners at NASA, through a $20 million partnership, hope to take that technology into orbit as early as 2020.
Made In Space's project is part of a broader trend toward the commercialization of space. As NASA prepares to retire the International Space Station in 2024, private companies like Axiom and Bigelow are rushing to take its place — the same way Elon Musk's SpaceX stepped in when NASA ended its Space Shuttle program in 2011.
Made In Space hopes to help turn those private space stations into manufacturing hubs, producing what Rush calls a "low Earth orbit economy."
In-space manufacturing also could have major implications for the search for life on other planets, said Steve Jurczyk, associate director of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. Scientists can't launch a telescope into space that's big enough to produce high-quality, color images of planets that orbit other stars, Jurczyk said. If that telescope instead could be built in space, though, scientists could use it to study the atmospheres of other planets and determine whether they could support life.