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Special Delivery: Space Station Sends 3-D-Printed Parts Back to Earth

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station usually receive packages from Earth, but things are the other way around this week: A shipment of parts 3-D printed in orbit has made its way back to the surface for testing. The ISS 3-D printer has been active for a few months, putting out small pieces and complete tools, and now the items need to be examined closely to see whether they came out right. NASA's Quincy Bean is in charge of the printer project, and got to unbox the carefully packaged pieces, which were sent back to Earth in February aboard SpaceX's fifth contracted resupply mission to the ISS. You can watch him do the honors in this video uploaded Tuesday:

One piece he shows off is a complete ratchet, which was designed on Earth and then "beamed up" to the station, where it was actually printed in November. Previously the printer had made a spare part for itself, and since then has made all manner of small pieces that will help the investigators understand how microgravity affects the printing process.

Once the details are worked out, the ISS crew will know what parts and tools can be reliably replaced by printed versions, removing the need to send up more via rocket. You can keep up with the latest news from the project at NASA's 3-D Printing site.

Astronauts take daring spacewalk outside International Space Station 2:56

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--Devin Coldewey