Space stations and satellites could be the most sophisticated factories of the future.
- From electronics to medicines to body tissues, manufacturing could benefit from zero-gravity production.
- The costs of accessing space are also reducing.
- That’s leading to a surge in space factory initiatives and investments for these startups.
Imagine a family in crisis. The father has a heart problem and needs a replacement. A transplant becomes available, and he’s rushed into surgery. Only the heart isn’t from another human. It’s completely artificial, and on top of that, it was made in space. It was constructed in a bioprinter — 3D printers used to fabricate organs and tissues — on a space station and then flown back to Earth.
This is no wild Hollywood script. Manufacturing processes in multiple industries, from electronics to medicines, are hindered by gravity and would be easier in a vacuum. For instance, when bioprinters produce certain types of thin tissue on Earth, they collapse in on themselves. Similarly, the relative purity of a vacuum could help computer chip production by avoiding impurities in semiconductors. That’s why a growing number of researchers and companies are now looking to the skies and beyond to build a select group of high-tech products. Some of our most sophisticated future factories might be located in space.
The startup Made in Space wants to use the International Space Station (ISS) to make specific types of fiber-optic cables that are hard to produce with gravity. And microgravity could even help us discover cures to diseases like Alzheimer’s, with drug experiments currently taking place on the ISS.
Being able to turn off [gravity’s] effects allows [engineers] to fundamentally rethink what products can be manufactured. A whole world of innovation opens up.
Will Bruey, CEO, Varda Space Industries
Meanwhile, Techshot, an Indiana-based space and defense contractor, is at the moment testing a bioprinter on the ISS. And investors are increasingly betting on space factories as the future. Varda Space Industries, a space manufacturing startup, raised $9 million in venture funding in December 2020.
“Gravity, being a fundamental law of physics, is a key consideration for engineers developing new products,” says Will Bruey, CEO of Varda Space Industries. “Being able to turn off its effects allows them to fundamentally rethink what products can be manufactured. A whole world of innovation opens up.”
Techshot has installed what it calls a BioFabrication Facility on the ISS. It’s a bioprinter that looks like a square metal box. It also contains a number of other devices, like bioreactors, which grow tissue inside of it. “Regenerative medicine can benefit from microgravity,” says Rich Boling, vice president of Techshot. “When someone wants to bioprint specific types of tissue, gravity flattens them out. It’s very difficult to print something thick on Earth that has vascularization, [the biological phenomenon] which allows nutrients to flow through the tissue.”
For now, Techshot’s facility is hardly at the level of printing an entire organ. Researchers have only performed limited tests, and they don’t have the knowledge needed to produce entire organs in a bioprinter.
And then there’s the issue of cost. Sending things up into space and back down is prohibitively expensive, even with players such as SpaceX lowering costs. “Microgravity is probably suitable for bioprinting,” says professor Michael Gelinsky, who heads the Centre for Translational Bone, Joint and Soft Tissue Research at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany. “But it’s nonsense to print an organ like a kidney in space and bring it back to Earth to treat patients here.”
Gelinsky is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) on bioprinting in space. But according to him, the technology will mainly be used to supply astronauts or perhaps a moon base. The cost of sending a bioprinter up, and tissue back down, is simply too much for the scheme to work.
Even Techshot admits this vision is somewhat far out. “This is a technology that perpetually seems to be five years away,” says Boling. “But we’re trying to chip away at that timeline with every experiment we do.”
Yet even though artificial organs aren’t going to fall from the sky anytime soon, and despite the costs, Varda Space Industries sees a market for space manufacturing. “We’re building two capabilities: a satellite to do in-orbit manufacturing and a way to bring the resulting products back to earth,” says Bruey.
The company was founded by a number of former SpaceX engineers and will essentially build a small satellite that can go into space, construct things there and then send them back down to earth in a capsule. “The cost of launch is dropping,” says Bruey. “Manufacturing in space is not a new idea, but it is only now becoming economically feasible.”
For the moment, Bruey won’t reveal the specific products Varda hopes to manufacture in space. That’s part of its “secret sauce,” he says. But he points to new materials as a promising first area. They are aiming for a first launch in 2023.
As Gelinsky suggested, the most immediate benefits of space manufacturing might not be felt on Earth. Humankind is poised to increase its presence in space and on the moon, and shipping supplies up there is expensive. Bringing along a 3D printer and some materials might be the more economical alternative. “We don’t want to bring an entire hospital with us when we send humans to the moon or Mars,” says Gelinsky.
Yet some see a more ambitious future for space manufacturing. “When we were at SpaceX, the end goal was always reusable rockets,” says Bruey. “But now we have those, and we’re seeing it’s just an enabler for more economic development in outer space.” If this heady cocktail of science, belief and ambition truly takes off, initiatives by Techshot’s BioFabrication Facility might indeed become BFFs for desperate families around the world.