What happens when you’re in outer space and you suddenly need something you don’t have? It’s not like UPS makes regular trips to the International Space Station.
Normally, astronauts could have to wait up to several months for a specific tool to be delivered up to the ISS. But thanks to 3D printing, astronauts no longer need to wait.
In the first-ever case of “emailing” a tool into space to meet the needs of an astronaut, ISS commander Barry Wilmore was in need of a ratcheting socket wrench, so he had one emailed to the 3D printer that’s now aboard the ISS, Wired reports.
The 3D printer was designed and built by Made In Space, a California company.
Mike Chen, cofounder and chief strategy officer for Made In Space, says “this type of technology translates to lower costs for experiments, faster design iteration, and a safer, better experience for the crew members, who can use it to replace broken parts or create new tools on demand.”
Mind you, this isn’t the first time a 3D printed object was made in space — a total of 21 total objects have been made aboard the ISS. But this was the first time an astronaut needed a specific tool the 3D printer hadn’t made before.
Here’s the process: Made In Space designs the 3D-printed hardware in CAD software, which is then converted into a file-format the 3D printer can read. The company then sends the file to NASA, which is then transmitted to the ISS. The Space Station’s 3D printer can receive the code and begin manufacturing immediately.
All 21 objects that have been 3D printed in space will be brought back to Earth for further testing.
“We will use them to characterise the effects of long-term microgravity on our 3D-printing process, so that we can model and predict the performance of objects that we manufacture in space in the future,” Chen says.