An experimental 3D printer is being sent to the International Space Station (ISS) that uses non-stick grippers modelled after gecko feet in order to function in space.
The printer is intended to be used by the astronauts to build tools that they may not have on-board and works by heating plastic, metal or other materials into streams that are layered on top of each other to create three-dimensional objects.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket loaded with supplies launched yesterday with a Cygnus capsule perched on top containing nearly 3,400kg of food, science experiments and equipment, including the printer.
"If we had a choice of what we could use that printer for, I'm sure we could be quite creative," station commander Tim Kopra said during an inflight interview on Tuesday.
The experimental Gecko Gripper is a new kind of adhesive that mimics the way gecko lizards cling to surfaces without falling. It aims to test a method of attaching objects in the weightless environment of space.
NASA is looking at robotic versions of gecko feet to attach sensors and other instruments onto and inside satellites.
The Gecko Gripper technology may lead to terrestrial versions of grippers that could, for example, hold flat-screen TVs to walls without anchoring systems and adhesives, said lead researcher Aaron Parness with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The Cygnus capsule is also carrying a telescope that will be used to chemically analyse meteors as they blast through Earth's atmosphere and a prototype exercise station that is a fraction of the size of the equipment currently used by station crew members.
Cygnus is due to reach the station, which flies around 400km above Earth, on Saturday. It is expected to remain docked at the orbiting research laboratory, a $100bn project of 15 nations, for two months.
Cygnus' science mission will continue after it undocks from the space station, serving as a platform for a fire experiment. The capsule, which is not designed to return to Earth, will then plunge into the atmosphere and burn up itself.
Last month, NASA delayed the launch of a cargo shipment to ISS after black mould was found on two fabric bags that were due to make the trip.