For the first time ever, hardware designed on the ground has been emailed to space to meet the needs of an astronaut. From a computer in California, Mike Chen of Made In Space and colleagues just 3D-printed a ratcheting socket wrench on the International Space Station. “We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore (who goes by “Butch”) mention over the radio that he needed one,” Chen writes in Medium this week. So they designed one and sent it up.
“The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly,” he adds. It’s a lot faster to send data wirelessly on demand than to wait for a physical object to arrive via rockets, which can take months or even years.
The team started by designing the tool on a computer, then converting it into a 3D-printer-ready format. That’s then sent to NASA, which transmits the wrench to the space station. Once the code is received by the 3D printer, the wrench is manufactured: Plastic filament is heated and extruded layer by layer. The ISS tweeted this photo earlier this week, and you can see more pictures of the very cool wrench-printing process here.
Located on the campus of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Made In Space built the first 3D printer for microgravity, and it was launched to the ISS in September. Within a month, the astronauts 3D-printed their first object: a replacement faceplate for the printer’s casing (pictured below).
“We chose this part to print first because, after all, if we are going to have 3-D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers,” NASA’s Niki Werkheiser said in a news release back in November. “If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid. Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer.”
Since then, another 20 objects have also printed -- though these were designed before the printer left Earth and the files were delivered on a cargo supply flight. These first prints will be brought back down in 2015 for examination. Researchers will be comparing them to identical objects manufactured on the ground to study the effects of microgravity on the 3D-printing process.