en_pol_02_2014enOne of the most exciting applications of 3D printing technology, in my opinion, is 3D printing in space. We’ve been closely following the progress of NASA and Made In Space ever since they made history by sending a 3D printer to the International Space Station and creating the first-ever objects to be 3D printed outside the Earth’s atmosphere, in zero-gravity. Steady progress has been made since then, as the American organizations work towards establishing a permanent outer space additive manufacturing facility.

I’ve often thought that zero-gravity 3D printing is the new space race, as multinational organizations push to be at the forefront of the development of outer space 3D printing technology. Everyone wants to be the first to build structures on the moon, or on Mars, and to shoot ahead of all others as the leader in space exploration – although international space agencies do seem to be open to collaboration. It’s clear that 3D printing is absolutely crucial to advancing space exploration. Zero-gravity 3D printing allows for the manufacture of critical parts and tools while in transit on a spacecraft, and, according to experts, it’s the only way we’re going to be able to build any sort of temporary or permanent bases on other planets.

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Thus, zero-gravity 3D printing is a major priority for space programs all over the world, and while the United States is leading in the development of the technology, China appears to be catching up. The Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization (CSU), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has been working on developing their own zero-gravity 3D printer, and according to recent reports from the center, it’s going pretty well.

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[Image: Wang Gong]

A research team from CAS recently carried out a series of tests on their printer over the course of about two weeks, from February 22 to March 5. The tests, which were conducted in Bordeaux, France, involved 93 parabolic test flights that subjected the printer to zero-gravity conditions for about 22 seconds at a time. In a prime example of the internationally collaborative environment of the 3D printing space race, the test flights were facilitated by the Space Administration of Germany.

According to CAS, the team is pleased with the results. The tests involved two different printing technologies and five different materials, including a fiber reinforced polymer which, according to the team’s technical chief Wang Gong, has not been tested by NASA. The samples printed as the team had hoped they would.

In addition to its multi-material capabilities, the Chinese printer is apparently bigger than NASA’s, with a build volume of 220 ×140 ×150 mm. It’s an impressive-sounding machine, but no information has been provided as to when China will attempt launch the printer, which CSU developed with help from the Chongqing Institute of Green and Intelligent Technology, into space. It looks as though they’re getting close, however, and hopefully we’ll be hearing more in the near future. In the meantime, NASA and Made In Space certainly aren’t in danger of falling behind, as they continue to surge forward with the development of a massive 3D printing space robot in addition to a permanent zero-gravity additive manufacturing facility. Following this race has been a lot of fun. Discuss in the China Zero Gravity 3D Printer forum over at 3DPB.com.

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