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Do We Still Need Orbiting Factories?

One of my favorite science fiction concepts is that of orbital factories. As far as I know, the first use of the phrase occurs in Bind Your Sons To Exile, a 1976 story by Jerry Pournelle:

Bill Jack only half listened. They had all been through pressure suit training. A few had been in orbit before. Certainly Bill Jack had; his contract with Space Industries required him to work summers in their orbital factory complex. It had been pleasant work, and Bill had enjoyed his status.

But are there materials that can only be manufactured in a zero gee or microgravity environment? That's what Arthur C. Clarke proposed in his 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise:

"...it is a continuous pseudo-one dimensional diamond crystal... It can be mass-produced only in the orbiting factories, where there's no gravity to interfere with the growth process.

Recently, work has been done to see if it is possible to use other techniques to replace the (admittedly costly) necessity to transfer materials into orbit and then bring them back. For example, the heavy metal fluoride and chalcogenide glasses used in infrared transmitting applications and laser fiber guides for cutting, welding and medical surgery.

Non‐oxide fiber optics such as heavy metal fluoride and chalcogenide glasses are extensively used in infrared transmitting applications such as communication systems, chemical sensors, and laser fiber guides for cutting, welding and medical surgery. The addition of rare earths such as erbium, enable these materials to be used as fiber laser and amplifiers. Some of these glasses however are very susceptible to crystallization. Even small crystals can lead to light scatter and a high attenuation coefficient, limiting their usefulness. Previously two research teams found that microgravity suppressed crystallization in heavy metal fluoride glasses. Looking for a less expensive method to suppress crystallization, ground based research was performed utilizing an axial magnetic field. The experiments revealed identical results to those obtained via microgravity processing. This research then led to a patented process for eliminating crystals in optical fiber preforms and the resulting optical fibers.

(Via Eliminating Crystals in Non‐Oxide Optical Fiber Preforms and Optical Fibers.)

I'm still in love with the concept, so I'll keep rooting for it. Here are some other applications and possibilities:

- The Dawn Of Orbiting Manufacturing In 2020?
- First 3D Printer In Space?
- Students! NASA Wants To 3D Print Your Tool Design In Space!
- Jeff Bezos Wants Orbiting Factories (Clarke-style)
- Archinaut Orbiting Robotic Factory
- Made In Space To Manufacture Optical Fiber In Orbit
- Orbital Manufacturer 'Made in Space' Gets $73 Million NASA Contract
- 3D Printed 'Blisk' Manufactured In Orbit
- Space Construction Tools For Large Structures By OAC

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/19/2023)

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