This 3D-printed toolbox was designed to store tools for maintaining Europe’s Columbus research module, and now it is on its way to the International Space Station via European Space Agency’s latest ATV resupply spacecraft.

(Liftoff is set for 23:52 CEST - 21:52 GMT - today, ESA says.)

The main innovation is that it has little clips to hold the tools in place, instead of the Velcro inserts that may lose their stickiness over time. (However the toolbox exterior still has Velcro covering, so it won't drift away while astronauts work.)

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This multitray toolbox is every handyman's dream. It is very much like something you could buy at a hardware store, strong and lightweight — but it was entirely printed using ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic. And then whole stuff looks great and very well organized.

If any part of the toolbox breaks, then the ground has only to reprint and fly up the tray in question. Following this pilot project, future long-duration missions could carry their own 3D printers into space, to print out broken parts immediately.

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The tools themselves will fly separately in a soft pouch on ATV Albert Einstein because it turned out to be simpler and cheaper to launch them in a bag rather than have to perform complex vibration testing on the toolbox with all its tools inside.

“At the moment, there are five separate bags that tools are stored in, but crewmen have complained in that this set-up is cumbersome and time-consuming" - explains ESA’s project leader, Bram Bekooy. The new toolbox plus tools will be evaluated for practical use by ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, currently aboard the orbital outpost for a six-month stay.

Photo: ESA/Thales Alenia Space