3D printer making Chinese space suit parts

Apr.30,2015

Chinese researchers have used 3D printing technology to make a safer space suit for astronauts while spacewalking.

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Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang in spacewalk   Xinhua/China Features

A research center with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation used a 3D printer to create the vent pipes and the flanges connecting the pipes used on extravehicular space suit, according to a recent report from China Space News.

The vent pipe and the flange as a whole can improve the reliability and safety of the space suit, and suits can be made more efficiently. Researchers will use the technique to make more parts, says the report.

The technology has been approved by the Scientific Research Training Center for Chinese Astronauts.

China plans to launch its second orbiting space lab, Tiangong-2, in 2016, and aims to put a permanent manned space station into service around 2022.

Chinese astronauts have three kinds of space suits: inside-capsule suit, inside-capsule jacket and extravehicular space suit.

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Chinese first astronaut Yang Liwei before bording spacecraft.  Xinhua/China Features

The inside-capsule space suit is used in case the pressure changes in the spaceship, usually during launch and landing periods.

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Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping in space lab Tiangong-1   Xinhua/China Features

The blue and lightweight inside-capsule jacket is used during normal flight, and is more convenient for work in the spaceship or space station.

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Extravehicular space suit         Web photo

The extravehicular space suit is the most complicated, providing life support system for astronauts during spacewalks.

The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAOST)has successfully developed a multi-laser metal 3D printer, enabling astronauts to print items with just one 3D printer in space.

Wang Lianfeng, senior engineer at the academy, says the 3D printing technology is suitable for making parts with complicated structures and odd shapes, such as the valves of rocket engines.

“It’s very difficult to process the complicated parts by traditional methods,” says Wang. For example, it takes two groups of workers, working shifts around the clock, more than two weeks to make a part of a rocket engine, but a 3D printer can do it in just 16 hours.

Wang says China is on the cutting edge of 3D printing technology.

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The multi-laser metal 3D printer in the  SAOST   China Features

The multi-laser metal 3D printer in the SAOST is like a gray-colored cabinet.

The 3D printer used in space is similar to regular printer in principle, but it should be smaller and lighter, and must undergo more zero gravity tests, says Wang.

There are still many difficulties to overcome in 3D printing in space. Researchers are still developing materials suitable for 3D printing and the precision of 3D printed items needs to be improved, Wang adds. 

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