Science fiction truly turned into reality in October 1957 when Sputnik was launched – humankind’s first step beyond the Earth. Since then, progress has been rapid. A significant number of men and women have now travelled to space to explore it and do research.
But while we tend to think of space as the playground of scientists, could it prove more useful in the future? Could we one day gain economic benefits through innovative industrial activity at factories in space, taking advantage of the minimal amount of gravity?
Governments funding very expensive space missions have long looked for ways to secure an economic return. In the late 1990s, NASA encouraged any industry that said it could make space pay to get involved. Under this financial incentive, many claims were made for the industrial promise of the microgravity environment experienced in orbit. The lack of gravity might allow the growth of protein crystals important in the fight against cancer, it was said. New materials might be manufactured in zero gravity to exhibit new and useful properties, it was thought. There were many other claims.
But the costs of launching materials and the necessary equipment, processing the ingredients and returning the end products to Earth gradually showed these ideas to be economically unsustainable. Access to space comes at prices per kilogram, currently approaching the cost of gold. In fact, it turns out that almost anything processed in space proves to be far too expensive to create a viable business back on Earth. But could this change?
The near future
We already have opportunities for industrial participation in space on the International Space Station. It orbits the Earth 16 times a day with between six and nine astronauts on board. A wide range of experiments in the life and physical sciences are carried out each day on the ISS, making it a kind of flying, zero-gravity laboratory. Many of these experiments generate information of direct relevance to industry.
As one example, understanding how molten metals flow during the casting of complex shapes requires measurements of the properties of metals near their melting point. This is best done on samples floating in microgravity with no container contaminating the sample. The data obtained will improve the future economics and reliability of casting on Earth. The microgravity environment is an important tool in understanding physical and life processes here on Earth.