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NASA Will Soon 3D Print Tools Astronauts Can Actually Use

"If you’re on a journey to Mars, there is no telling what you might need.”

​In November 2014, a ratchet wrench was designed on Earth by 3D printing company Made In Space Inc. NASA then pinged over the file to space so that an astronaut could 3D print it on the International Space Station.

This wrench became the first ever object to be 3D-printed in space. Designed by Made In Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin, it revolutionised the idea of space supply and demand. Its manufacture highlighted that in the future, astronauts might just be able to 3D print whatever they needed, without waiting for costly refuel missions from Earth.

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This week, a whole assortment of other objects 3D printed in space was "unbox​ed" by Quincy Bean, principal investigator for the 3D Printing in Zero-G Project at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Among the 21 objects printed from 14 different designs were a crowfoot coupon, a sample container, a microgravity structure test system, and a torque tool coupon.

What are the ramifications of this box of 3D-printed goodies for astronauts?

"In-space manufacturing technologies like 3D printing will help NASA explore Mars, asteroids, and other locations," said Niki We​rkheiser, NASA's In-Space Manufacturing project manager.

Werkheiser stated that these early in-space 3D printing demonstrations marked the "first steps toward realising an additive manufacturing, print-on-demand 'machine shop' for long-duration missions." She also noted that these objects would help sustain human exploration of other planets, "where there is extremely limited ability and availability of Earth-based resupply and logistics support."

Before being launched up to t​he ISS, the 3D printer made an identical set of parts for each object. The investigators now want to mark out the obvious differences between parts made on Earth and those printed out in space.

"We'll start with photographs for visible differences between the two parts," said Bean in NASA's newsletter. "From there, we'll use structured light scanning to check the fine geometry and move on to microscope views and even CT scans to look for internal voids or any spaces between layers. We want to see if there is any difference between how the layers adhere in microgravity compared to Earth gravity."

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For the moment, these 3D-printed objects have just been made to demonstrate that the printer works in space, and to investigate whether microgravity changes anything about how it operates. Over email, Tracy McMahan, a spokesperson for the Marshall Center, told me that, so far, the objects looked fine visually. "The only real issue encountered so far were some of the parts adhering too much to the print tray," she said.

As these specific objects were more for testing purposes, they won't be used in space this time round. But for the second phase of printing, Bean and Werkheiser are working with the crew tools office at the Johnson Space Centre to print off tools that astronauts could actually use.

The objects in question will be for both repair and general use, explained McMahan. "[They could be] for use as replacement parts for science experiments or just for something nobody thought of. A scientist might want to do something, and rather than wait until we can launch extra equipment to the station, he could just have the crew 3D print what he needs. Or if something breaks in an Apollo 13 type scenario, a 3D printer could be used to help create the part needed for repair. Of course, if you're on a journey to Mars, there is no telling what you might need."

Looking for practical solutions to everyday issues seems top of the agenda. McMahan referred specifically to the science sample container. "We are operating more than 200 experiments during each six-month ISS expedition. If we could make science equipment onboard the station, especially simple things like containers or tools, it would keep the crew from having to wait on equipment to be launched to space and save us the expense of launching some of the equipment."

Sustainability is also key. "We also want to recycle parts and even packaging so we don't have to launch feedstock for the printer," she wrote, adding that NASA already had proposals for building and launching a recycler out to the ISS.