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NASA Needs A Better Zip-Tie Cutter To Use In Space, Duquesne Students Have An Idea

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.

Credit Kathleen J. Davis / 90.5 WESA
Duquesne students Garett Craig and Tori Kocsis, part of the design team.

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.