Made in space: who will do fiber on the ISS

    In July, a prototype of the device was brought to the ISS , which will be used to manufacture ZBLAN fluoride fiber . It surpasses the usual “optics” in transmittance in the infrared range and other optical parameters.

    If all goes well, then the first “space mini-plant” for the production of fiber will appear in orbit. Under the cut - more about the features and prospects of development.

    / Wikimedia / NASA / PD

    Project authors

    The idea of ​​producing something in space originated in the late sixties. Today, even private companies and start-ups provide financial and technological support for such experiments.

    For example, the prototype for the production of ZBLAN in space is the result of the cooperation of American technology companies Made In Space and Thorlabs. SpaceX is responsible for delivering the prototype, and NASA staff and astronauts on the ISS are responsible for organizational issues.

    ZBLAN glass itself in 1975 was developed by researchers from the University of Rennes in France. The composition of ZBLAN included glass-forming fluorides of a number of metals - zirconium, barium, lanthanum, aluminum and sodium. The first letters of these metals and called glass.

    Why do you need it

    In the production of optical fiber, a special billet is heated to a temperature above 300 ° C and pulled into a long thread like gum. For this purpose, exhaust installations with a height of several tens of meters are used. The final cable length is limited by the dimensions of the preform and the amount of impurities in the glass structure.

    The main imperfection of the "earth" cables lies in their opacity. Impurities and irregularities in the glass prevent the passage of a signal over long distances. To broadcast it, for example, across the ocean, you have to install a large number of repeaters and amplifiers.

    Compared to conventional cables, the fiber from the ZBLAN fluoride glass group is differentlow optical loss in the core of the fiber due to absorption (absorption) and scattering. ZBLAN is also characterized by low losses in the region of infrared radiation , in particular, in the middle of the infrared (2000–5000 nm) range, where conventional cables work worse.

    However, ZBLAN glass is quite fragile, so pulling a long fiber out of it is expensive and difficult. In addition, gravity leads to the formation of a precipitate in the crystal structure of the fiber.

    According to researchcompanies Made In Space, if you make fiber in space, it is formed ten times smaller than the "crystals". Therefore, optics, produced in zero gravity, will be able to transmit a signal beyond the "classic" cables.

    According to Andrew Rush, CEO of the company Made In Space, from four kilograms of “space blanks” you can get four kilometers of optical fiber. This ratio, says Rush, makes the whole enterprise cost-effective, even despite the high costs of sending billets and equipment into space.

    Application and development of technology

    Andrew Rush says that ZBLAN's “cosmic” fiber can be routed across the Atlantic without a single repeater. He also noted that the throughput of new cables will exceed the performance of classic quartz fiber by 50–100 times.

    In the future, in space, it will be possible to produce fiber several tens of kilometers in length with a capacity of at least one hundred times higher than earth cables.

    / Flickr / Tim Pierce / CC

    Now researchers are testing a prototype that arrived on the ISS in July. After this experiment, the “cosmic” optical fiber will be sent back to Earth to check its suitability and evaluate the performance. Third test fabrication of optical fiber in spacewill begin either in November or in December of this year, depending on the astronauts schedule.

    If the test results are successful, the researchers will begin work on the deployment of equipment for the industrial production of optical fiber in orbit.

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