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ISS 3D printed ratchet after NASA emailed the wrench to space

Astronauts aboard the ISS needed a new wrench, so NASA emailed the code to the Zero-G 3D printer aboard the space station where it took about four hours to print. NASA also released new images showing Christmas lights from space.

ISS commander Barry Butch Wilmore holds up 3D printed socket wrench
Credit: NASA

Mike Chen, founder of Made in Space, was listening to ISS chatter over the radio when he overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore say he needed a wrench. So Chen said, “We designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have. This is the first time we’ve ever ‘emailed’ hardware to space.”

A SpaceX Dragon cargo craft delivered the Zero-G 3D printer to the ISS in September; it was installed on Nov. 17. The first 3D printed object in space was a faceplate for the printer. Chen explained on Backchannel, “The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly. It also marks the end of our first experiment—a sequence of 21 prints that together make up the first tools and objects ever manufactured off the surface of the Earth. (The other 20 objects were designed before the printer flew to the space station.)”

The ratcheting socket wrench is considered the first “uplink tool” printed in space. Although it took about four hours to print, the entire process took “less than a week.”

First, “Made in Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin 3D modeled the ratchet in Autodesk Inventor.” Several iterations were 3D printed on the ground before the engineer “realized that rounded edges and finger grooves on the handle would make the tool more ergonomic and improve the grip.” The CAD design was converted into the 3D printer G-code format and sent to NASA.

After NASA deemed the design met a safety qualification, the Huntsville Operations Support Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center transmitted the code to the ISS. The 3D printer, which is installed in a Microgravity Science Glovebox, can be seen on the screen.

ISS 3D printer on the screen at the Marshall Space Flight Center NASA

After Made In Space verified the file via checksum, making sure there were no errors in the digital data, the command was sent for the 3D printer to start printing layer by layer.

Chen said:

Because it’s a lot faster to send digital data (which can travel at the speed of light) to space than it is to send physical objects (which involves waiting months to years for a rocket), it makes more sense to 3D-print things in space, when we can, instead of launching them.

When we do set up the first human colonies on the moon, Mars and beyond, we won’t use rockets to bring along everything we need. We’ll build what we need there, when we need it.

Christmas lights from space

It seems like it would be difficult for astronauts to be away from family and friends over the holidays, but Christmas display lights can be seen even from space. New analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite found that “patterns in nighttime light intensity change during major holiday seasons.” In the U.S., lights get brighter starting on Black Friday through New Year’s Day.

According to NASA:

Around many major U.S. cities, nighttime lights shine 20 to 50 percent brighter during Christmas and New Year's when compared to light output during the rest of the year, as seen in the satellite data. In some Middle Eastern cities, nighttime lights shine more than 50 percent brighter during Ramadan, compared to the rest of the year.

In the U.S., only snow-free cities were analyzed because snow reflects too much light. “They focused on the U.S. West Coast from San Francisco and Los Angeles, and cities south of a rough imaginary line from St. Louis to Washington, D.C.” In the image below, “dark green pixels are areas where lights are 50% brighter, or more, during December.”

US city lights shine brighter during the holidays than the rest of the year NASA’s Earth Observatory
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