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China operates continuous composites 3D printer in space

The autonomous system was launched with the new Long March 5B rocket

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China has conducted its first 3D printing experiment in space on the newly launched spacecraft sent into orbit during the maiden voyage of the Long March 5B heavy-lift carrier rocket, according to the China Academy of Space Technology.

The Long March 5B Yaoyi carrier rocket successfully sent a new-generation manned spacecraft test ship into the scheduled orbit at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Hainan. The rocket was equipped with a composites 3D printer official named “Space-based Composite Material 3D Printing System”.

During the flight, the system autonomously completed the sample printing of continuous fiber-reinforced composite materials, and verified the scientific experiment goal of 3D printing of composite materials in a microgravity environment. This is China’s first orbital 3D printing experiment and the world’s first space 3D printing of continuous carbon fiber-reinforced composite materials.

The “Space-based Composite Material 3D Printing System” developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

The China Academy of Space Technology confirmed on its WeChat account on Thursday that the experiment was carried out by the 3D printer, developed and built by its Beijing Spacecrafts Manufacturing Factory, inside the prototype of China’s new-generation manned spacecraft.

The printer uses carbon fiber-reinforced composites to autonomously print objects. It is installed in the re-entry module of the experimental spaceship and will be brought back to Earth once the module returns to the ground.

One of the continuous fiber-reinforced composites 3D printed parts 3D printed in space as part of the experiment.

The academy said the printer features advanced technologies in material modeling, precision control and automation. It explained that once the space-based 3D printing technology becomes operationally ready, it can extensively benefit space programs as astronauts can use it to manufacture a lot of things they currently need to obtain from resupply flights by cargo spacecraft.

Video clips broadcasted on China Central Television showed that the printer had printed a flat section of a honeycomb-shaped structure as well as an emblem of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the parent company of the China Academy of Space Technology.

The prototype of China’s new-generation manned spacecraft was lifted into the low-Earth orbit by the maiden mission of China’s Long March 5B heavy-lift carrier rocket. The flight was intended to verify key technologies and equipment for the new-generation spaceship including the heat-resistance, control and recovery devices, and the test results will be used for further improvements, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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