You don't have to become an astronaut to use the International Space Station's new 3-D printer. NASA has challenged students, ages 5 to 19, to design 3-D-printed tools that could be made in microgravity.
The first 3-D printer to fly in space arrived at the astronaut outpost last month aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. SpaceX delivered the machine along with more than 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) of cargo on its fourth resupply mission to the space station for NASA.
The printer was built by the California-based company Made in Space, which plans to create simple plastic parts at first, to test whether 3-D printing is viable in the final frontier. Now, students will have a chance to take part in that experiment.
NASA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation have launched a set of "Future Engineers" 3-D Space Challenges. The contest asks students in grades K-12 to create and submit a digital 3-D model of a tool that they think astronauts will need in space.
"As you know, we don't have overnight shipping up in space, so when we really need something, we have to wait," NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, who spent six months on the space station in 2010, said in a video announcing the challenge. "To be able to make parts on demand will forever change that for us."
Entries are due by Dec. 15. They'll be judged for their creativity, usefulness and adherence to design guidelines. Semifinalists will be announced in mid-January, and the winners will be revealed on Jan. 30.
The grand prize for the winning teen entrant (ages 13 to 19) includes a trip to NASA's Payload Operations in Huntsville, Alabama, where the student will watch his or her object manufactured on the space station. The winner in the 5- to 12-year-old set will get a 3-D printer for his or her school.
You can learn more about the contest and how to participate here: http://www.futureengineers.org/
— Megan Gannon, Space.com
What would you want to see printed on the International Space Station? Even if you can't enter the NASA contest, you can pass along suggestions via the NBC News Science Facebook page. Your suggestion can be as simple as a sentence, or as detailed as a mechanical drawing. Flag your idea by using the hashtag #BeamItUp.
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