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In-Space Manufacturing Is About to Get a Big Test (2017) (space.com)
109 points by zeristor 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

This is a really interesting first use case for it.

For those that are interested in the price, this link is interesting.

"One kilogram of exotic glass feedstock can be expected to produce from 3 to 7 kilometers of fibers in under an hour in microgravity, under optimized conditions. At a nominal cost of $88K/kg, the launch costs for the preform and spool (estimated to be 2 kg) combined with the landed costs for the filled spools would be approximately $176,000.

The current low-end market price for ZBLAN fibers is $150/meter. Therefore, even at today’s lowest market prices, a kilogram of ZBLAN launched to space could be sold on Earth for between $450,000 and $1,050,000.

However, the real value of microgravity will be in producing ZBLAN and other exotic fibers of exceptional quality. Today, these custom fibers are sold between $300/meter and $3,000/meter. At current market prices, a preform launched to a fiber manufacturing facility in orbit could yield from $900,000/kg to $21,000,000/kg."


> This microgravity-produced fiber has numerous applications, including trans-Atlantic telecommunications

That didn't seem feasible - my first guess was that you couldn't possibly use something that you need to bring to space to cross the Atlantic. My gut was that the math would put it somewhere above the economic output of the planet. But when I stopped guessing to actually do the math, that 5,000 km multiplied by $300/meter is 'just' $15B. Still just one fiber, and still a lot more than the $300M that a traditional cable costs, but it could be done.

Costs will come down when manufacturing output increases, especially if there are competitors in the ... space.

I can’t find any reference to ZBLAN being used for long distance telecommunications, it’s seems like it’s both too expensive, and it’s exceptional properties (excellent infrared transmittance) aren’t particularly relevant to that application. Why particularly specify trans-Atlantic though? Looks like somebody in marketing getting a bit ahead of themselves.

I'm not up to speed on ZBLAN at all (had to google what it is just now), but if it can really do 0.05dB/km at 1550nm [1], then it seems like it's actually ideally suited for long distance telecom. This is like taking an off-the-shelf "80km" SFP, and turning it into an "800km" SFP. Am I missing something?

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZBLAN#/media/File:Zblan_transm...

I believe you mean 'just' $1.5B.

Still a nice chunk of change, but order of magnitude less.

Surely you'd get a discount if you're buying the product in multiples of a million units.

There is a solid business case here in manufacturing these (assuming the technology plays out as we expect). The reason is that beyond having better loss rates (so a single cable can got at least an order of magnitude farther). ZBLAN itself has a "higher bandwidth" associated with it, allowing more light frequencies, making it a MUCH wider pipe.

Relatively recently, there was a new cable laid to go from Halifax, VA to London at about 4,500km. For this cable, they paid about $300M to shave milliseconds.

If you can have a cable to span that same distance using 1/20 the repeaters you should in theory save even more time.

4,500km of ZBLAN fiber is roughly 500-900kgs (5 - 9km/kg). Using the #s I have seen before quoted from Made In Space ($2M/kg), that same cable would notionally cost between $1 - $1.8B.

While I can't answer whether there are companies that really would be willing to pay 3 - 6X the price for the better performance... I suspect there might be especially given the faster speed + higher bandwidth.

It's more like an indicator that it's not a good business case yet, but if (when!) someone gets the launch costs down, then there will be a solid high-volume business case to pay for these launches.

I may need to edit my original post, but I think I didn’t clearly make a few points. The first is that Made in Space said they could sell fiber at $2M a kg. Now, I believe this number for specialty, high power optical cable applications (laser surgery). However, even in the case that they couldn’t sell at that number, I suspect that by the time you get to where you can creat 100s if not 1000s of km strands, your total costs will be MUCH lower than $2M/kg. I suspect maybe 1/10 that cost. If that is the case, and assuming you sell for around $1M a kg, you now are extremely profitable, and only marginally more expensive then current cables.

The $88K per KG price seems kind of high; perhaps that's the cost of delivering a small package to ISS and back?

If a Falcon 9 can launch 22,800 kilograms (according to Wikipedia) for about 90 million dollars (I think that was about the price of a launch if I remember correctly), then that comes out to ~$3948 per kilogram. There would be additional costs of delivering the payload exactly where it's supposed to go and dropping the finished fiber back to Earth, but in volume the price per KG seems like it could be a lot less than the quoted price (if there's a market for ZBLAN that's big enough to justify).

Actually a launch to LEO costs less than 60Million $. But you need a reentry vehicle as well. If you want to start tomorrow, your only choice would be a dragon spacecraft. It can bring back 3t of cargo. Depending on the price tag of the dragon and its refurbishment (I would assume up to 40 million), I'd calculate up to 33k$ per kg at today's market.

The big question is how demand responds to supply, and price.

In extremis this sort issues blinds people to asteroid mining; there’s only so much demand at a price.

This is a great toe hold though, I doubt there’ll be enough demand to fund and run an orbital industrial facility, but it could play a part in that.

If a portion of all this surplus capital that is sloshing around the world could be profitably directed to space then momentum will build.

I guess in microgravity all bets are off, but the box they show doesn't match my mental model for "how they make fiber". I'm thinking of these videos I've seen of 2-3 story tall fiber optic manufacturing machines where they drop the molten glass a dozen feet down the middle before touching it.

Somehow I'm more impressed by the fact that they can pull optically clear fiber in a box the size of a rackmount case than that they will do it in orbit.

>where they drop the molten glass a dozen feet down the middle before touching it.

I guess in orbit it's constantly falling.

That doesn’t really help when what you’re trying to do is stretch the material.

So this thing was launched in December, and news on whether or not it was successful?

Looks like they're still waiting on the results[1].

[1]: https://twitter.com/MadeInSpace/status/958730115353137152

I don't mean to spoil it, but something exactly like this is mentioned in "Artemis," by Andy Weir, author of "The Martian."

NASA has also done some reseach into ZBLan fabrication on earth using magnetic fields to eliminate crystal formation (https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/201200...). This seems to be an expensive effort to duplicate the same effect.

If you go through the paper, it’s clear that the microgravity work is proven but the magnetic field work is still under development.

Also the pictures of the fibres are interesting, it’s hard to be sure but my mk1 eyeball estimate is that the magnetic process fibre looks slightly inferior in terms of even surface consistency. Which is a very subjective measurement but if they were of identical quality I would hope the paper author would do a better job of highlighting that fact.

So this already happemed? What were the results?

Whatever happens, kudos to Made In Space! These guys have tenacity.

That website is so broken on mobile. Every 2 seconds something else loads an moves the text away from its current scrollposition.

Why are they trying to say 2.2lb is 4kg? That's really odd I think they converted the wrong way around?

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