Is this the world’s most advanced toolbox? Possibly not. But it may be the off-world’s most advanced toolbox, 3D-printed, and now in orbit to help maintain Europe’s Columbus research module.
The new space-faring toolbox was 3D printed in ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic by Thales Alenia Space in Turin through an ESA contract. It was then safety tested by labs in ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, for the release of harmful vapours in the closed environment of the Space Station.
‘At the moment, there are five separate bags that tools are stored in, but crewmen have complained that this set-up is cumbersome and time-consuming. The new toolbox includes little clips to hold the tools in place, just like toolboxes you can buy at a hardware store, instead of the previous Velcro inserts that may lose their stickiness over time. At the same time, the toolbox exterior still has Velcro covering, so astronauts can leave it in place while they work without it drifting away!’ ESA Project Leader Bram Bekooy.
The ESA’s ATV-4 lift off from Kourou, French Guiana at 5:52 p.m. EDT on Wed Jun.5, 2013 (Images: ESA)
ESA astronaut Frank De Winne advised on the design: “An additional advantage of 3D printing is that if any part of the toolbox breaks we only have to reprint and fly up the tray in question rather than the whole box. Similarly, making any improvements we might decide on will be only a matter of updating the computer model, then printing the sections.’
Further to evaluation by astronaut Luca Parmitano, this pilot project may herald future long-duration missions with on-board 3D printers to fabricate new parts for broken items and tools. A 3D printer is due to join the International Space Station this year, plus a host of other applications for 3D printing in space are currently being explored.