We may argue here on Earth about how quickly energy resources, precious metals and water are dwindling. But few will debate the potential benefit of tapping the limitless supply of these resources awaiting us on the Moon, the asteroids and planets in our Solar System. In this case, the sky is literally the limit. The so-called space economy represents the ultimate in a high-yield investment. But, as always, for investors there is a proportionately high risk.
Defining that risk is as difficult as defining the boundaries of the space economy. Today, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Space Forum describes the global space economy largely in terms of the core activities required to build and launch vehicles and payloads into orbit. In 2013, commercial revenues for these activities generated some $256 billion globally. However, as we establish the orbital infrastructure necessary to reach further, the space economy’s definition will eventually encompass all public and private factors involved in developing, providing and using space-related outputs, space-derived products and services, and the scientific knowledge arising from research.
Between us and the incredible opportunities waiting in space are several supremely difficult technological challenges, beginning with the need for a basic communications infrastructure in orbit that will help us navigate to the next stages of a successful space economy. Beyond that is the task of leveraging entirely new manufacturing modalities in zero gravity. Beyond even that, the almost inconceivable difficulties and potential of settling on and mining a virtually infinite range of celestial bodies for their precious resources.
Fortunately, the rudimentary tools that will help us solve these future challenges are apparent in the established and emerging manufacturing methods of today, such as mass production, robotics, 3-D printing (additive manufacturing) and others. These technologies are on track to form the foundation for the early stages of the emerging space economy, starting with the first: Launch and early orbit.
First Stage: Launch and Early Orbit
The orbital space economy has been slow to get off the ground due to the seemingly prohibitive cost barriers of moving infrastructure off the planet surface. This assumption, however, is being challenged today by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, whose SpaceX aims to reduce launch costs to less than one-tenth of competing rocket systems. The strategy underlying this ambitious goal has several elements, and lowering manufacturing cost is among them — as demonstrated by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which incorporates three nearly identical rocket stages rather than two solids and a core stage. By producing identical units, SpaceX simplifies production and thus reduces unit cost. This approach also allows constant improvement of product manufacturing processes, allowing SpaceX to accelerate production rates of its Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week or an upper stage every two weeks.
As launch costs become more affordable, space becomes a more attractive environment for once earth-borne sectors, such as data server farms. As the backbone of today’s fast-growing digital economy, the computers on these farms draw massive amounts of electricity from the grid; and the cooling systems required to keep them from overheating use nearly as much power as the servers.
Jabil and its customers are already exploring the potential benefits of placing data farms in orbit, lending a very literal twist to cloud computing. As an operating environment, Earth’s orbit offers virtually unlimited real estate for data farms, as well as an endless source of unmetered electrical power from solar energy. The vacuum of space also provides the perfect heat sink to ease the task of cooling servers and even enabling supercomputing systems to operate faster.
Further, the long, unobstructed sight lines above Earth simplify wireless networking. This introduces the option of designing orbital data farms as small computing nodes linked together to form a constellation. Smaller nodes are not only easier to power and cool, they are less costly to launch. ConnectX — no relation to SpaceX — is one company proposing such an idea to offer big data processing capabilities that cost an order of magnitude less for its customers.
As the pace and sophistication of satellite and launch technology accelerates, it will provide the foundations for the space economy’s second stage, in which manufacturing and other activities will shift into orbit as well.
Second Stage: Manufacturing in Space
Many companies, including Jabil, are exploring the unique possibilities of orbital manufacturing platforms. Admittedly, there are significant capital investment and logistical challenges to shifting production operations and their associated supply chains into orbit. Countering these challenges, however, are many attractive benefits. Earth’s orbit offers virtually unlimited real estate, free power, access to extreme temperatures and a much lower risk factor for processes too environmentally hazardous to be performed on Earth.
The absence of gravity or atmosphere, however, is the most unique and compelling attraction to space manufacturing. The absence of gravity or wind enables fabrication of large or delicate structures that would be difficult to manufacture on Earth, or that are too large or fragile to be launched from the surface. Examples include solar arrays, large antennae, orbital platform components and even space craft.
The space environment also offers unique new possibilities along the entire value chain for many industries. It enables production of new alloys, purer metals and defect-free semiconductors, films and coatings among other products. The absence of atmosphere, for example, eliminates oxygen contamination from metal-forming processes. So, it becomes possible to produce pure iron that is stronger than conventional earth-borne iron, and able to hold water indefinitely without rusting.
Microgravity also eliminates the convection currents in molten materials, such as metals or thermoplastics. It prevents solids from settling in solution. Liquids form perfect spheres in microgravity, which also makes it possible to blend or systematically arrange materials of very different densities or mass much more efficiently. As a result, it is possible to achieve purer separations and blends in alloys, polymers and composites, or optimize crystallization processes for solar cells, microelectronics and microelectromechanical systems. In more practical terms, zero-gravity manufacturing can help produce more powerful computer chips, more efficient solar energy panels, longer-lasting batteries or even new fabrics that stay the same temperature in most any climate.
Many of the benefits of manufacturing in a weightless vacuum also apply to 3-D printing, which produces objects from 3-D model data by adding cumulative layers of a polymer or metal material, depending on the printer process. An emerging but fast-growing technology, 3-D printing has been most quickly adopted by the medical and aerospace industries, which use it for both prototyping and full-scale manufacturing of complex parts. It is especially effective at quickly producing single parts with complex interiors, which typically must be produced as separate components that are then machined and assembled.
Leading design and manufacturing companies are initially developing the technology as a prototyping tool to explore how 3-D printing from a digital design can help overcome the limitations to machining a part. But commercial applications are already under exploration as well, such as the use of additive manufacturing to fabricate strong but lightweight metal parts.
The technology is already proving its potential on current space missions, where advocates see it as eventually providing greater independence from earthly supply chains. A significant percentage of hardware failures on the International Space Station (ISS) involve parts made from polymer and composite materials. So, by installing a 3-D printer and a few pounds of raw feedstock material, the ISS could produce spare or customized parts onsite and on demand, rather than dedicating precious room onboard to maintain an inventory of spare parts.
In fact, the ISS installed a 3-D printer last year as part of a collaboration between NASA and California-based Made in Space, who designed and built the machine. The first part it produced was an extruder plate for the printer itself. The Station crew has since fabricated 19 other parts that all came from designs pre-installed on the machine before its launch. The final part was a ratchet wrench that was successfully printed from a design broadcast from Earth. All parts will eventually return to the planet for comparison against counterparts made from the same machine before it was launched.
NASA and others foresee a much more elaborate future for 3-D printing than ratchet wrenches. Programs like the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) are exploring use of additive manufacturing for in-orbit construction of structures that would be designed specifically for the microgravity environment, rather than for the rigors and volume constraints of space launch as similar structures are designed today. Examples of such structures include ultra-thin mirrors, gossamer structures like ribbons, large antennae and arrays, reflectors and trusses among others.
Further into the future, 3-D printing could enable construction of similarly large structures on the Moon and other celestial bodies using native materials. In 2013, the European Space Agency and industry collaborators proved the feasibility of building a Moon base with additive manufacturing by using a 3-D printer from Monolite to spray a binding solution onto a simulated lunar soil. Next, the agency plans to explore an approach that would build Moon structures by melting lunar regolith with concentrated sunlight.
Third Stage: Sky Mining
There is no shortage of potential profits from manufacturing in space. However, the ultimate and almost inconceivable goal of the space economy is mining the infinitely rich resources circling our Sun and planet. Closest to home, our Moon harbors an abundance of calcium, titanium, iron, magnesium and other minerals, as well as oxygen and possibly hydrogen that can be processed into rocket fuel.
Asteroids offer another source of potential riches. There are an estimated 9,000 of these space rocks measuring 50 or more meters wide orbiting near Earth, and each may encapsulate $65 billion in water or $130 billion in minerals. On the far side of Mars, in the Solar System’s asteroid belt, the prospects for space mining asteroids become literally astronomical.
That makes Mars a likely spot for a way station, and the red planet isn’t short on resources, either. Deuterium, a fuel source for fusion reactions, is five times more abundant than on Earth, and the planet is also suspected of hiding vast deposits of platinum, gold, silver and other rare minerals under its 144 million square kilometer surface.
Both SpaceX and NASA are eyeing the feasibility of colonizing the fourth planet from the Sun. However, if and when the first settlers land there, it is likely they won’t be human. Space tourism aside, there is little value in transporting and sustaining large human populations in space. Even for more practical activities, such as exploration, colonization and ultimately space mining, the first high-risk steps will more likely be taken by robonauts.
In addition to minimizing the risk to human life, the use of robots will also help minimize the amount of mass launched from Earth. NASA’s Mars 2020 program is drafting the plans for sending the next rover, which aims to demonstrate in situ resource utilization once it lands on the planet. Specifically, it will carry technologies onboard to test the plausibility of producing fuel, oxygen, and water from the Martian soil and atmosphere.
An even more ambitious “bootstrap” approach would apply something akin to the American colonist model of the 17th century, which basically shipped just enough supplies across the ocean to evolve a local supply chain that could be sustained and expanded into a base for exploration, production and commerce. Only instead of Europeans, the colonists to Mars would be a squadron of teleoperated robonauts equipped with 3-D printing tools able to construct additional robots and tools from Martian regolith.
This minimal mass approach would start with a very small foothold on Mars that would tap the initially low-yield but entirely free resources. From this, the robonauts would build a self-sustaining, self-replicating automated or tele-operated mining operation that would expand exponentially over time. Although it would take years to turn the corner from sustenance to production, everything would be pure profit once resources started to flow back to Earth.
Jeffrey Lumetta is Jabil’s Vice President and CTO, representing the High Velocity and Industrial & Energy division with responsibility for engineering management and technology strategy. He began his career at Jabil in 1986 as an Automotive Engineer specializing in electrical systems design, and was promoted in 2000 to Vice President of Design Engineering to strategically support the company’s diverse sectors.
Dr. Philip Metzger is a planetary physicist who recently retired from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where he co-founded the KSC Swamp Works. He is now at the University of Central Florida — but still a part of the Swamp Works team, performing research related to solar system exploration: Predicting how rocket exhaust interacts with extraterrestrial soil, investigating the mechanics of soil, characterizing lunar and Martian soil simulants, modeling the migration of volatiles on airless bodies.