The Future of Manufacturing Industries in Space

KEY TAKEAWAYS

NASA sees manufacturing in space as the next frontier in developing semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and other materials. In terms of employment, the number of jobs in the space sector is growing.

Space… The final frontier… And maybe a good place for a factory?

There is no doubt that given the current pace of technological development, the jobs of the future will look different from today – particularly in manufacturing.

A staple of science fiction for years, we are now getting to the point where establishing manufacturing facilities in space is getting close to reality.

It has numerous advantages (once you get past the costs and risks), including breakthroughs in the production of semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and other materials in the microgravity environment of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

There are companies in the early stages of making it happen, seeing the opportunity of LEO providing a unique environment — because microgravity, increased radiation levels, and near vacuumless conditions allow producers to use new methods or materials.

What is Low-Earth Orbit?

LEO refers to the orbit of the Earth at an altitude of 1,200 miles or less. As the nearest type of Earth orbit, it requires the lowest amount of energy for satellites and space station placement. It is the most accessible for crew, workers, and maintenance, according to NASA.

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LEO is already home to the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits 250 miles above Earth and the Hubble Space Telescopeat 340 miles above Earth, and telecom satellites for mobile phone communications and Earth observation satellites for environmental monitoring.

Gravity in LEO is referred to as microgravity, as the gravitational force is much weaker than on Earth. This environment cannot be replicated in a laboratory on Earth but is key to increasing yield in manufacturing.

“The benefits of semiconductor manufacturing in LEO are clear. Earth’s gravitational forces pose substantial barriers to quick, high-yield semiconductor production,” according to a NASA report.

“Beyond the scientific benefits of microgravity, there are substantial practical benefits to incorporating LEO-based manufacturing into the supply chain.”

A map of gravity zones in space
Via McKinsey

What Are the Benefits of Space Manufacturing?

The conditions in LEO can potentially increase manufacturing production by improving efficiency and performance. The environment will likely also result in new research breakthroughs to advance technology and discoveries.

Most advanced material manufacturing processes — for instance, casting, injection molding, and 3D printing — involve the use of liquid materials or molten metals to create complex shapes.

Similarly, deposition techniques, such as chemical vapor deposition (CVD) and physical vapor deposition (PVD), rely on gaseous states of matter to deposit thin films and coatings onto surfaces, NASA notes in its report.

The underlying principles for these processes rely on humans’ innate understanding of how liquids and gases behave under gravity. In the pharmaceuticals, food processing, and chemical refining industries, liquid and gas phases are frequently used in manufacturing processes for mixing, separation, and purification.

In microgravity, the absence of buoyancy and sedimentation allows for greater precision, improved material structure, and increased uniformity in manufacturing.

Microgravity’s lack of convection and hydrostatic pressure enables increased control and precision material placement.

This precision is ideal for producing nanomaterials and controlled 3D printing processes for additive manufacturing. Additionally, microgravity alleviates the need for containers, which can create disadvantages in semiconductor processing on Earth, such as size limitations and sample contamination.

Taking the example of semiconductor production, manufacturing has several advantages in LEO. LEO provides access to solar power for energy-intensive semiconductor production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions on Earth from energy generation and production processes.

Semiconductor manufacturing processes require high vacuum (HV) and ultra-high vacuum (UHV) environments, and semiconductor crystals grown in microgravity are typically larger and have fewer impurities and defects than those produced on Earth.

In a study cited by NASA reported that over 80% of semiconductor crystals processed in LEO improved in structure, uniformity, reduction of defects, and/or electrical and optical properties by orders of magnitude.

By enhancing semiconductor purity and crystalline structure, manufacturers can create higher-quality electronic and computing components for more efficient and reliable electronics for use on Earth and in space.

Research shows that this also applies to the growth of protein crystals for pharmaceuticals — those grown in space tend to be of much higher quality than those produced on Earth.

Microgravity can change the chemical process for formulating active pharmaceutical ingredients, resulting in more precisely controlled drug formulations with improved efficacy — opening up new possibilities for drug formulation. The microgravity environment allows for more accurate modeling of certain physiological conditions, helping to advance biomedical research.

One Small Step…

Research into the possibilities for space manufacturing is not new. The first experiments in growing semiconductor crystals were conducted on the Skylab space station in 1973.

In 1985, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) created Centers for the Commercial Development of Space (CCDS), a few of which focused on space-based materials processing. Some proof-of-concept research has occurred on the International Space Station (ISS).

It has a facility that can sustain temperatures suitable for semiconductor manufacturing but is better suited to work on cancer research, biomanufacturing, and pharmaceutical synthesis, according to NASA.

With so many projects vying for limited capacity on the ISS, several commercial startups are exploring opportunities to develop space manufacturing by building compact space factories.

This year has seen UK-based Space Forge announce plans to start manufacturing its re-launchable materials manufacturing satellite in the US and sign a deal with US aerospace and defense firm Northrop Grumman to explore space-based semiconductor manufacturing.

In June, US-based Varda Space Industries launched its first space factory into orbit, focusing on pharmaceutical testing. In July, NASA selected 11 US companies to receive a combined $150 million to develop technologies to support long-term exploration in space and on the Moon, ranging from lunar surface power systems to tools for in-space 3D printing.

According to McKinsey forecasts, space manufacturing could generate billions of dollars in revenue over the coming decades.

Via McKinsey

The Future of the Workspace in the Space Economy

Manufacturing supply chains in space could form part of a broader space economy that incorporates asteroid mining, LEO production, lunar resource utilization, space utilities, commercial rovers, and cargo transportation to and from Earth.

via Factories in Space

The global space industry already employs hundreds of thousands of workers in advanced technology jobs. A growing stream of highly qualified workers will be essential to support in-space manufacturing and fill new jobs.

“Attracting a competent and extensive workforce for semiconductor manufacturing is difficult on Earth, but space offers an exciting opportunity that may be leveraged to develop a workforce. Computer science is currently a much more attractive job in terms of advertising, and the industry is struggling to compete for personnel,” according to NASA.

The Space Report issued by the Space Foundation for the third quarter of 2023 shows a steady growth in the global space workforce despite competition for a shrinking pool of skilled workers. Private space employment growth accelerated in the first half of 2023 at a 3.4% rate, and Europe’s space workforce expanded by 8.2%.

“The growing space industry’s need for workers is expected to continue over the next decade, with many space-related occupations projected to grow twice as fast as average. Tumbling enrollment in technical fields at two-year colleges and vocational schools could lead to a labor shortfall as space industries enter mass production,” the Foundation stated.

The Bottom Line

The current technological revolution will significantly impact employment in a range of industries, and the burgeoning development of commercial space factories will create new opportunities for manufacturing in space.

From semiconductors and nanotechnology to pharmaceuticals and personal care products, low-Earth orbit facilities could create new possibilities in production and development, leading to breakthrough discoveries. This will require a highly skilled space workforce to come to fruition.

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Nicole Willing

Nicole is a professional journalist with 20 years of experience in writing and editing. Her expertise spans both the tech and financial industries. She has developed expertise in covering commodity, equity, and cryptocurrency markets, as well as the latest trends across the technology sector, from semiconductors to electric vehicles. She holds a degree in Journalism from City University, London. Having embraced the digital nomad lifestyle, she can usually be found on the beach brushing sand out of her keyboard in between snorkeling trips.