Astronauts often use zip-ties for quick fixes on payloads and hardware outside the International Space Station, but cutting them can be tricky and create debris.
NASA is looking for a better way to cut these zip-ties and capture the pieces, and the space agency is considering a design developed by Duquesne University students.
But first, why does it matter?
Junior biomedical engineering and nursing major Garett Craig, head of design on the project, said if a small piece of zip-tie got loose in space, it could be lethal. He held up a one-inch piece of the thin plastic for scale.
"If this piece gets cut and starts floating around the earth at about 20,000 miles per hour, and just a little piece of plastic like this, it would pass right through you like no problem," he said.
It could also damage hardware at the ISS. The Duquesne students' design is made of 3-D printed plastic, aluminum and steel, and looks like an excessively hardy pair of pliers. It not only cuts the zip-ties, but also "swallows" them up between gears and stores the pieces in a little box attached to the contraption.
The NASA connection
Duquesne's team of six presented their design in Houston last month alongside six other universities at NASA's Micro-G Next Design Challenge. A diver tested the designs in a large pool used to simulate zero-gravity, cutting zip-ties in various configerations while wearing a heavy space suit.
"They really really liked that idea of being able to do many zip-ties all right after each other instead of just one at a time," Craig said.
NASA plans to develop its own cutter based on the best parts of the student designs.