Over the next four years, NASA engineers hope to come up with 3-D printable technology capable of handling liquids aboard the International Space Station without spilling in microgravity. This gives astronauts aboard the ISS the ability to analyze their own biological samples, such as blood, without needing to send them back to Earth.

At the moment, it takes months between the time a sample is collected, and it can be analyzed, as there is no way to do so aboard the ISS. This can create huge delays, and in some cases, can even cause the sample to become compromised. There is also a huge expense involved. The goal of this technological development is to create a system for the analysis of molecular samples without significant intervention or delay.

Another challenge NASA hopes to address with 3-D printable technology is the collection of samples. To prevent spills or air bubbles, astronauts must be very careful with the way they collect numerous samples, including blood, saliva, and the microbes from the station itself. These samples must be carefully mixed with water and then injected into containers for analysis. Any misstep can comprise the integrity of the sample.

NASA is not too far behind on the development of this project. In 2016, they developed a tool allowing for the sequencing of DNA in outer space. The next phase is to develop an extractor – a small 3-D printable cartridge that extracts the required acids from the sample. After this, the device could then process and analyze the sample. One of the leading developers, Camilla Urbaniak, compared the device they are developing to a “one-stop-shop.”

There are numerous ways this type of technology can lead to improved astronaut health. It can help study the effects of microbes in space on the human body, giving astronauts the ability to determine which ones are harmful and which are not. Immediate action can then be taken in response to harmful microbes, improving astronaut health.