NASA space explorers have made a major breakthrough with the first ever in-space creation of a tool from a design emailed from Earth, taking a big step towards highly sustainable space exploration.
The 3D printing breakthrough, on the International Space Station, has been brought about just weeks after the creation of the first ever 3D printed item in space, a part for the printer itself.
It marks a significant milestone in the history of space exploration, as it demonstrates the ability of astronauts to create their own items within space, instead of waiting for items to be physically sent from Earth (those items have to be manufactured in the wrong gravity for space and then put through enormous forces to leave the Earth). The developments will transform exploration as astronauts will be able to travel further from home and support themselves highly effectively.
International Space Station Commander Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore with the 3D-printed ratchet. (Credit: NASA)
The item created was a ratcheting socket wrench, 3D printed by ISS Commander Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore last Wednesday, based on a design simply emailed from Earth.
Technicians at Made in Space overheard a discussion aboard the ISS that such a ratchet was needed, and engineer Noah Paul-Gin quickly created a suitable design, in the Autodesk Inventor system, to email to the astronauts.
Made In Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin designing the ratchet to be 3D printed in space (Credit: Made In Space)
The ratchet was printed aboard the ISS, over a four hour period, using a specially designed 3D printer able to operate in microgravity. The entire design, quality assurance, testing and printing process took under week – and as the technique is perfected it will take much less time.
The ratchet itself was designed as a single print with movable parts, as all mechanisms have to be enclosed to prevent pieces from floating in a microgravity environment.
A close-up of the 3D printed ratchet, which was physically created in under 4 hours after the design was received aboard ISS
The work is part of NASA’s ambitious In-Space Manufacturing Initiative, which represents a key element of future space exploration. NASA is working to 3D print increasingly advanced objects, including cubesats (micro satellites) and even optical instrumentation, and will also look to create micro habitats using human-created and space materials.