MOFFETT FIELD, CA. Made In Space, Inc. (Made In Space) and Thorlabs, Inc. (Thorlabs) will send a microgravity-optimized, miniature fiber drawing system to the International Space Station (ISS) to manufacture high-value-to-mass ZBLAN optical fiber via a user agreement with The Center for Advancement of Science In Space (CASIS). The payload, called the “Made In Space Optical Fiber Production in Microgravity Experiment” (Fiber Payload) is currently scheduled to be launched to the ISS in the first quarter of 2017. The Fiber Payload will produce test quantities of ZBLAN optical fiber in the persistent microgravity environment ISS provides, and be returned to the Earth shortly thereafter. Once returned to the Earth, the fiber will be tested and utilized. Based on the results from this initial experiment and market demand, Made In Space plans to develop and operate larger scale microgravity production facilities for ZBLAN and other microgravity enabled materials. “ZBLAN optical fiber was chosen as the initial material for experimental production because its value per kilogram is significantly higher than current launch costs, it has a strong existing terrestrial market, and research indicates that microgravity-manufactured ZBLAN can open large new markets as well as more effectively serve the current market,” says Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space, Inc.
In order to produce the highest quality ZBLAN possible, Made In Space has entered into an exclusive development agreement with Thorlabs, the world leader in terrestrial production of ZBLAN, Indium Fluoride, and other exotic optical fibers. Thorlabs’ exotic optical fiber R&D team is led by Dr. Mohammed Saad. “Dr. Saad’s team has done amazing work in improving the quality of terrestrially produced ZBLAN for more than a decade. It has been a joy working with them. The goal of this partnership is to combine our in-space manufacturing expertise with Thorlabs’ optical fiber expertise in order to rapidly develop microgravity-manufactured high quality fiber and introduce it into existing and new markets,” says Mr. Rush.
ZBLAN has much broader transmission spectrum and can theoretically offer significantly lower transmission losses than silica fiber, the type of optical fiber used in applications ranging from lasers, to transoceanic telecommunications, to delivering high speed internet. Terrestrially produced ZBLAN is currently used for fiber lasers, medical devices, and other near infrared applications. Due to gravity-induced imperfections in the crystal lattice, transmission losses are significant, preventing ZBLAN from being used more broadly. Research stretching back to NASA-led work in the early 1990’s indicates that manufacturing ZBLAN in a microgravity environment unlocks its commercial potential by reducing or eliminating these imperfections. Based on this research, Made In Space will attempt to pull at least one hundred meters of ZBLAN optical fiber in microgravity next year. If successful, current applications of ZBLAN will be improved and wider uses, such as long haul telecommunications, may be enabled. In the future, the technology used in the Fiber Payload may be used to produce other types of exotic fibers in microgravity, to produce fiber formulations that cannot be produced under a gravity field, as to produce rare-earth fibers doped at higher concentrations than currently possible on the ground.
Trends in Internet usage suggest that by the year 2020, there will be more than 50.1 billion devices online worldwide. These devices will be used by almost half of the world’s population and global Internet traffic is projected to top two zetabytes (two trillion gigabytes). This expansion of data transmission volume cannot be adequately served by current systems. Microgravity-produced optical fiber is a strong candidate for providing the necessary additional bandwidth.“
Historically, the commercial space industry has profited off of satellite telecommunications-- sending ones and zeros back and forth. Made In Space’s in-space manufacturing activities expand the commercial envelope to making valuable goods there too.” Says Mr. Rush, “We believe in-space manufacturing of goods valuable to people on Earth will soon drive significant commercial activity in space, perhaps one day creating a space-based economic boom.”
About Made In Space:
Founded in 2010, Made In Space, Inc. has become a world leader in space-based manufacturing products and services. Following a 2014 demonstration on the International Space Station (ISS) of the first on-orbit 3D printer for NASA, Made In Space now operates the commercial Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) in partnership with CASIS, the managing NGO for the ISS National Lab, and Lowe’s Innovation Labs, the disruptive technology hub for Lowe’s Home Improvement. In addition to the AMF and Made In Space Fiber Optics systems, Made In Space is working on a number of other space-based manufacturing projects.
Thorlabs, a vertically integrated photonics products manufacturer, was founded in 1989 to serve the laser and electro-optics research market. As that market has spawned a multitude of technical innovations, Thorlabs has extended its core competencies in an effort to play an ever increasing role serving the Photonics Industry at the research end, as well as the industrial, life science, medical, and defense segments. The organization’s highly integrated and diverse manufacturing assets include semiconductor fabrication of Fabry-Perot, DFB, and VCSEL lasers, fiber towers for drawing glass optical fibers (silica and fluoride), MBE/MOCVD epitaxial wafer growth reactors, extensive glass and metal fabrication facilities, advanced thin film deposition capabilities, and optomechanical and optoelectronic shops.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) was selected by NASA in July 2011 to maximize use of the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory through 2020. CASIS is dedicated to supporting and accelerating innovations and new discoveries that will enhance the health and wellbeing of people and our planet. For more information, visit www.iss-casis.org. About the ISS National Laboratory: In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the International Space Station as the nation's newest national laboratory to maximize its use for improving life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users, and advancing STEM education. This unique laboratory environment is available for use by other U.S. government agencies and by academic and private institutions, providing access to the permanent microgravity setting, vantage point in low Earth orbit, and varied environments of space.