Space station crew gets new tool - via e-mail direct to the 3D printer

An undated photo courtesy of Nasa obtained Dec 20, 2014, shows space station commander Butch Wilmore as he holds up the ratchet after removing it from the print tray. -- PHOTO: AFP
An undated photo courtesy of Nasa obtained Dec 20, 2014, shows space station commander Butch Wilmore as he holds up the ratchet after removing it from the print tray. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - There may be no corner hardware store at the International Space Station, but that doesn't mean the astronauts can't get what they need.

In a first, the space station crew was able to craft a new tool in space, using their specially designed Zero-G 3D printer and a design e-mailed from the ground.

The tool, a ratchet, was designed by Made in Space, the California company that created the 3D printer on board the orbiting space lab.

The 3D printer has been used on the space station before, but only for designs that were tested and loaded before it left Earth.

This time, the tool was designed and tested on the ground and then e-mailed to the printer, which spat it out in about four hours, the company said in a statement.

"The ratchet was designed as one print with moveable parts without any support material," the company said.

"The parts and mechanisms of the ratchet had to be enclosed to prevent pieces from floating in the microgravity environment."

A prototype was printed at a lab in California and sent to Nasa for safety inspection and then the design file was sent to the orbiting printer.

The whole process took less than a week, from concept to completion, it added.

The ratchet, along with all other items printed at the space station, will eventually be returned to Earth to be compared for any differences with their counterparts printed in full gravity.