Commercial manufacturing of microgravity-enabled optical fiber has enormous potential, both on Earth and for space exploration. The Made In Space Fiber Optics (MIS Fiber) miniature fiber-pulling machine harnesses the unique properties of the microgravity environment to produce an optical fiber orders of magnitude better than what can be produced on Earth.
When produced in a strong gravitational environment, such as Earth, exotic optical fiber is subject to tiny flaws. These crystals appear in the fiber and significantly increase signal loss. When considering data transmission lines such as long-haul communication lines that can span thousands of miles, these flaws cause large enough attenuation of the transmitted light to make the system commercially infeasible. In space, ZBLAN optical fiber can be produced without these crystals, providing superior data transmission capabilities compared to both Earth-produced ZBLAN and traditional silica fiber optic lines. This microgravity-produced fiber has numerous applications, including transatlantic telecommunications, high-speed internet, lasers, as well as enhancing technologies in space.
Through privately funded, multi-year internal research and development work, Made In Space (MIS) has developed the expertise to successfully produce large quantities of high-grade optical fiber. MIS is partnered with Thorlabs, the industry leader in ZBLAN preforms and production of the material for terrestrial uses, to rapidly industrialize production of optical fiber in space.
MIS will pull at least 100 meters of ZBLAN in microgravity, via a cooperative agreement with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in summer 2017 aboard the International Space Station. Once returned to the Earth, the fiber will be tested and utilized, and based on the results, MIS will develop and operate larger scale production in space, ultimately flying multiple fiber producing sorties a year.