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Case Study: NASA Manufacturing Optical Fibers in Microgravity

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CASE STUDY Mercury + NASA Mercury and NASA manufacture high- performance optical fibers in microgravity CHALLENGE Optical fibers are most commonly made of silica (SiO 2 ) glass but optical losses in the fiber challenge signals across long transmission distances. ZBLAN (ZrF 4 -BaF 2 -LaF 3 -AlF 3 -NaF) is a type of fluoride-based optical fiber glass that has the potential to perform up to 100 times more efficiently than traditional silica-based fibers. However, when ZBLAN is produced on Earth, gravity-driven forces cause impurities to form in the fibers, significantly hindering their performance. A microgravity manufacturing environment for optical fibers is believed to eliminate the defects in the manufacturing process that occur on Earth, leading to higher-quality fibers than can be produced on the ground. These high-performance fibers provide a unique optical transmission spectrum, have potential use in space-based applications and could also lead to advancements in many commercial industries. SOLUTION NASA's advanced materials research study will create high-value optical fibers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) using ZBLAN. NASA's extensive theoretical studies along with a limited number of experimental studies suggest that ZBLAN optical fibers produced in microgravity should exhibit qualities far superior to those produced on Earth. The resulting optical fiber is expected to help verify these studies and guide further engineering efforts to manufacture high-value optical fiber in large volume aboard the ISS. RESULT In April 2019, a fully functional engineering prototype designed and built by Mercury was launched into orbit to meet the ISS. Currently the prototype is at a TRL7, having successfully drawn fiber in space and demonstrated fiber manufacturing in space, and Mercury expects to help prove NASA's theory in 2025 with the 2.0 prototype. LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR CAPABILITIES

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