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Space Station gets new mice and its first 3D printer for out-of-this-world science

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A SpaceX cargo capsule has docked with the International Space Station, carrying a varied cargo including an animal crew of 20 lab mice and the first-ever 3D printer to go into space, NASA says.

Following a 2-day trip, the Dragon capsule loaded with 4,885 pounds of supplies, experiments, computer gear, hardware and spacewalk equipment was gathered in by the station's robotic arm at 6:52 a.m. EDT.

European astronaut Alexander Gernst, operating the arm grapple, radioed Mission Control, "This was a great flight of Dragon toward the space station."

The capsule was launched Sept. 21 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

It will remain attached to the space station's Harmony node for four weeks, after which it will be loaded with cargo for a return to Earth and a scheduled landing and retrieval in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.

The nearly 3,000 pounds of return material will include experiment results for analysis on Earth, along with space station hardware and computer parts to be checked out by NASA engineers.

The mission is the fourth of 12 scheduled flights of the Dragon resupply capsule under SpaceX's $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

The rodent habitat with 20 female mice will be part of experiments on the effects of bone and muscle density loss experienced by astronauts in space.

Studying the effect on mice can help in understanding how a human body reacts to long periods of zero gravity in space, scientists say.

Previous rodent visitors to the ISS have rarely completed more than a week or two in space, whereas the current mice "crew" will be aboard for a full month.

"Never were we able to achieve a flight experiment of this duration, so we'll get some new information," said habitat project scientist Ruth Globus at the space agency's Ames Research Center in California.

The 3D printer delivered by the Dragon mission, built by the company Made in Space, will create some test parts under zero gravity that will be returned to Earth for study.

The goal is to see if such technology could allow astronauts on the ISS to create replacement parts and tools on board, eliminating the need to deliver them on supply missions, with the attendant expense of such missions.

The initial test parts will be made of the same plastic that Lego blocks are molded from, although future plans call for larger 3D printers in space that can spit out parts made from higher-temperature, stronger plastics, NASA said.

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