"In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers and the file was sent to the space where the printer made the wrench in four hours," said Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3D printer programme manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, US.

This was the first time a design file was sent from the ground to make a tool in the space. This ratchet wrench will be returned to the ground for analysis and testing, along with other parts printed in the space.

The wrench was designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space Inc, a California company that NASA contracted to design, build, and operate the printer.

The 3D printer built the wrench by additive manufacturing, depositing 104 layers of plastic.

"We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth," Werkheiser noted.

This technology may change how NASA completes exploration missions and even the way science is conducted on the station.

"If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you can send an e-mail, it opens up endless possibilities for all types of things that you can make from CubeSat components to experiment hardware," Werkheiser said.  

"We even may be able to make objects that previously couldn't even be launched to space," he added.

NASA is exploring how the microgravity environment may benefit how objects are designed and built in space for parts that cannot be made on the ground.

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