A future where mission control can digitally dispatch tools, spare parts and other vital materials to far-flung space crews took one giant leap toward reality when a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station produced a ratchet wrench on demand.
The 3D printer has been on the space station since it launched on an automated SpaceX supply ship in September, printing test coupons designed to prove the device functions in the weightless environment more than 200 miles above Earth.
On Dec. 17, engineers took the demonstrations a step further, uplinking a custom-made digital design file of a ratchet wrench to a laptop attached to the printer.
The ratchet is the first “uplink tool” produced by the 3D printer, according to Made in Space, a Silicon Valley startup that partnered with NASA to build and test the machine.
So far, the printer has only made things that were designed before it launched and tested on an identical machine on the ground. The ratchet produced Dec. 17 is an “uplink tool” that was designed, qualified, tested and printed in space in less than a week, according to Made in Space.
“The ‘uplink’ is the way we communicate with the ISS crew using a transmitting frequency from Earth to the International Space Station,” Made in Space wrote in a blog post. “Therefore an uplink tool refers to a tool design that was transmitted to the space station via the uplink and manufactured on-demand in space.”
The 3D printer works by extruding a special type of hot plastic — known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS — into layers to form a three-dimensional object. Engineers can upload the specifications of the finished product to the printer’s computer controller, which oversees the unit’s production.
Made in Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin created the ratchet design on Autodesk Inventor, a computer-aided design application, at the company’s ground station in California.
“During the rapid prototyping process, Noah realized that rounded edges and finger grooves on the handle would make the tool more ergonomic and improve the grip,” Made in Space said in a blog post. “The ratchet was designed as one print with moveable parts without any support material. The parts and mechanisms of the ratchet had to be enclosed to prevent pieces from floating in the microgravity environment.”
When Made in Space was satisfied with the design, they sent the file to NASA for a safety check. NASA then emailed the socket wrench’s specs to a laptop connected to the 3D printer.
The wrench took about four hours to print, Made in Space officials said. It will not be used by the astronauts but will be returned to Earth for inspection and analysis to see how the 3D printer in space compares to the performance of an exact copy of the device on the ground.
Astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore displayed the finished ratchet wrench in a photo sent back to Earth.
The demo printer does not require much attention by the astronauts, who only need to set up the system and remove the printed part at the end of the process.
Assuming the testbed works, a second 3D printer is on track for liftoff to the space station next year. It will be available for use by NASA, international space agencies and commercial users, according to Jason Dunn, co-founder and chief technology officer of Made in Space.
Aaron Kemmer, another Made in Space co-founder, tweeted Sunday that the company has completed the design phase of the second 3D printer.
For future missions into deep space — where supply lines with Earth may be thin — astronauts could use 3D printers to manufacture spare parts.
3D printing in space would avoid putting parts through the intense shaking and noise of launch, and it could allow engineers to design and build components on the fly as parts break down in space.
Future printers could manufacture whole structures for CubeSats, tools, medical gear, exercise equipment and other items to keep the space station operating.
“It’s especially important when we consider human space exploration,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s manager for the 3D Printing in Zero-G project. “From day one, the supply chain has been very constrained. We have to launch every single thing we ever need from Earth, so being able to make what you need on orbit — when you need it — is a real game changer.”
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.