The Best Place to Make Undersea Cables Might Be ... in Space

Wired | 9/11/2019 | Staff
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ZBLAN is different. It’s not for NASA. Discovered in the 1970s, ZBLAN is a strange and fickle material. A type of glass composed of heavy metal fluorides, instead of the typical silica, it has absorption and scattering properties that could make it a good fit for high-end lasers and even undersea internet cables. But the material is fragile, and, because of the varied densities of its component elements, develops microcrystals as it cools, ruining its potential. On Earth, ZBLAN producers make do with large facilities that drop beads of molten glass down multiple stories, drawing out the material into strands. But so far, microgravity offers the best environment to prevent the density separations and avoid the costly crystallization. The US Air Force first tested the hypothesis in the 1990s using parabolic flights.

Made in Space has already sent up its microwave-sized ZBLAN lab on past SpaceX launches. Unlike a typical manufacturing facility, where a machine gets loaded and reloaded with its source materials, this one does more traveling. The precursor materials are preloaded into the lab; when it’s done churning out cable, astronauts send the machine back down to Earth with the finished fiber inside. “We try to be respectful of the amount of time astronauts have,” says Rush. “They take it out, plug in power and data, and float away.” (In the future, the company plans to station a manufacturing facility in orbit, so that only the material comes up and down.) The project remains in the research phase, producing only small amounts of fiber, but Rush says he plans to launch a bigger facility next year that can produce enough ZBLAN to sell to customers.

Costs - Launch - Return - Math - Manufacturing

Even with high costs of launch and return, the math for orbital manufacturing works out, Rush says. A kilogram of material can produce thousands of...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Wired
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