Popular Science

The factories of the future could float in space

Orbital manufacturing is already paving the way for better solar panels, faster internet, cleaner computer chips, and lab-grown human hearts
bigelow space station

Bigelow Aerospace

Private companies providing cheap access to space could open up a whole new frontier in manufacturing. Bigelow Aerospace has suggested its expandable habitats (shown here) could be used as factories in orbit around Earth.

This past summer, a plane went into a stomach-churning ascent and plunge 30,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. The goal was not thrill-seeking, but something more genuinely daring: for about 25 seconds at a time, the parabolic flight lifted the occupants into a state of simulated weightlessness, allowing a high-tech printer to spit out cardiac stem cells into a two-chambered, simplified structure of an infant’s heart.

Impressive though this may be, it’s just a brick in the road toward an even bolder goal. Executives at nScrypt (the makers of the stem cell printer), Bioficial Organs (the ink provider), and Techshot (who thought up the heart experiment) are planning to print beating heart patches aboard the International Space Station by 2019. The printer will fly up on a commercial rocket.

Private spaceflight companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have been criticized as vanity projects for plutocrats surfing on taxpayer investments. But the emergence of these companies has led to nose-diving prices for sending goods and equipment into space. Today it costs roughly $5,000 to launch one kilogram of stuff, compared to $30,000 during the space shuttle era. So a growing number of entrepreneurs and researchers are looking to use this relatively cheap access to harness the unique qualities of low Earth orbit—including its vacuum, microgravity, unlimited solar power

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