Space manufacturing is not science fiction

Debbie Senesky: Venus is often called Earth’s sister planet, but I would like to say that it is Earth’s evil twin because it actually has a very hellish environment. Surface temperatures are around 480 degrees Celsius. The surface pressure is approximately 90 times greater than what we experience here on Earth. And I imagine it smells like rotten eggs and that’s because of some of the sulfur compounds that are present.

There is a hypothesis that billions of years ago Venus looked like Earth. Why did this evolution happen? Are there things we can learn about the history of Venus that we can apply to our understanding of Earth’s environment so that we can prevent our own planet from evolving to such conditions through climate change?

My name is Debbie Senesky and I am an associate professor at Stanford University in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

You are in the Extreme Environmental Microsystems Laboratory, or X Lab, at Stanford University. And in this lab, we research small but robust electronics and materials for space exploration. To enable electronics to work on Venus, my group is using wideband semiconductor materials.

These are essentially ceramic materials, just like your pots and pans, and they can withstand high temperatures, but they can also conduct electrons in a very reliable way. So you can use these ceramic semiconductor materials to make electronics that you can use for sensors or communication in a Venusian environment.

It is still a challenge to make electronics from these types of semiconductor materials. It is difficult for us to grow these materials without defects. It is difficult for us to understand how they function in these high temperature and chemically corrosive environments.

A new thing my group is working on is harnessing the space environment to create new types of materials. Chemistry happens differently in microgravity. You can potentially obtain materials with new properties that you cannot achieve here on Earth. Microgravity is different from Earth-based processing because we eliminate many of the effects we see here on Earth.

Number one is sedimentation. So, for example, if you drink Turkish coffee, on Earth the particles will sink to the bottom of your cup and then you’ll drink your nice, tasty coffee on top. However, if you bring your turkish coffee into low earth orbit, your coffee grounds will float freely and you will have a mouth full of coffee grounds when you take a sip. So it’s not great for making coffee, but it’s great for creating new materials in space.

More than 20 years ago, when we were doing microgravity growth of materials on the space shuttle, we found that the materials were of better quality, so fewer defects, and they also grew at a faster rate. So we can make things better and faster if we manufacture them in space.

So one of our first experiments, which will be conducted in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station, is to synthesize graphene airgel materials. They are very light, highly porous, they are electrically conductive and also thermally insulating. These materials are great because they can be used as heat shields, they can be used as battery electrodes, and also sensor materials. They would have more uniform properties by being produced in a microgravity environment.

Manufacturing in space is not science fiction. Access to space is becoming more common. We call them CLDs: Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations. These will be platforms that are very similar to the International Space Station, but built by commercial industry. Perhaps we will produce new types of crystals that we have not even dreamed of. We will also use these factories to create things that we might use for space missions.

This is a new space economy, the new frontier. We are truly reimagining the way we might live in 50 years.

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