In a new breakthrough in fiber-optic cable production, Made In Space recently announced that it plans on creating ZBLAN optical cables on the International Space Station (ISS) in the first quarter of 2017. If you've heard of Made In Space before, it's probably because you are familiar with them as being the company to introduce 3D printing to the ISS back in 2014. Shortly after, they added in a more permanent 3D printing facility on the ISS. So far, they have been most keenly involved with the manufacture of small, aerospace-grade composite goods specially designed for a microgravity environment. Their latest project goes beyond the admittedly fascinating potential of 3D printing and into the commercial manufacture of high-capacity fiber-optic cable.
What is ZBLAN?
The proposed fiber-optic cable being made is a ZBLAN cable. The ZBLAN acronym is appropriately derived from the heavy metals in the chemical composition of the material: zirconium, barium, lanthanum, aluminum, and sodium (with the chemical symbol "Na"). ZBLAN, part of the heavy metal fluoride family of glasses, provides a better quality of glass for fiber-optic cables compared to silica-based glasses; however, it is notoriously difficult to manufacture because of gravity-related imperfections in the glass. Therefore, its commercial use is extremely limited. Thanks to a series of experiments done by NASA in the 1990s, manufacturing this glass in low- or zero-gravity environments shows promise for creating extremely high quality fiber-optic cables. Made In Space is putting these initial studies to a practical test.
The Optical Fiber Cable of the 21st Century
The manufacture of goods in outer space is a definite possibility for our future. While expensive at this stage, laying the groundwork for such advancement is crucial. Made In Space's CEO Andrew Rush states that "[w]e believe in-space manufacturing of goods valuable to people on Earth will soon drive significant commercial activity in space, perhaps one day creating a space-based economic boom."
Improved Data Transmission
For its initial test run, Made In Space hopes to create at least 100 meters of fiber-optic cable in this microgravity environment. This cable will then head back to earth to be tested. If ZBLAN fiber-optic cable can be successfully made in space, it opens up the possibility of even faster, higher-quality data transmission across data infrastructure networks here on earth in the decades to come. The economic and technological potential of commercial ZBLAN cable is worth keeping an eye on for anyone in the telecommunications business.
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