Though there is still an important focus on Mars for its potential to host a human colony someday in the future, NASA is already thinking beyond the red planet and looking further out in the solar system to Saturn and Jupiter, whose moons may be the most likely places in the galaxy to show signs of life.
However, getting rovers and landers to these distant planets poses quite the challenge. To put it into perspective, humans have successfully sent rovers to Mars, which is about 35 million miles away from Earth. Jupiter, for its part, is 365 million miles from us and Saturn is 381 million miles further than that.
Though that might seem like an impossible task to some, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are already trying to come up with solutions in collaboration with 3D software company Autodesk. The groups, which are in a multi-year collaborative research project, are aiming to explore and identify new approaches to design and manufacturing for space exploration while leveraging Autodesk’s generative design technology.
Last week, Autodesk and NASA’s JPL exhibited a concept lander at Autodesk University in Las Vegas, which they say is the “most complicated structure ever created using generative design.”
Notably, as part of their collaboration, Autodesk has aimed to show NASA’s JPL the difference that generative design can have, in terms of a product’s performance and cost/time savings.
Mark Davis, the senior director of industry research at Autodesk, explained: “They were clear that they weren’t interested in incremental gains: if they were only able to improve performance by 10%, they basically weren’t interested. If we could deliver software tools to help them achieve a performance improvement of 30% or more, then we had their attention. This project demonstrates that Autodesk technologies may deliver mass savings at this level.”
In conceiving of the interplanetary lander, a number of factors had to be taken into account to meet requirements for complicated operational functions and resistance to extreme conditions. The engineers designing the lander also had to ensure the craft would have enough fuel to get where it’s going and that it would be as lightweight as possible.
As Autodesk elaborates: “Every kilogram of mass that can be cut from the structural payload enables a critical increase in the scientific payload of sensors and instruments to search for life beyond earth.”
Autodesk has primarily been collaborating with JPL’s Atelier division team, which is dedicated to exploring new technologies and processes for space exploration applications. Rather than take the risk of using new technologies right off the bat, the Atelier division tries out various new avenues and if they are successful they “infuse” the new technology into existing processes.
Autodesk’s generative design tools have been one of these new technologies. But JPL isn’t just working with Autodesk’s commercial generative design tools in Fusion 360; the NASA lab has access to cutting edge and experimental versions of Autodesk’s generative design software.
“We had developed a custom version of our software for high performance motorsports that enabled us to help our customers solve for multiple constraints at once. We then applied it to the problems JPL needed to consider,” Davis said. “We took a system that was developed to help our customer solve system level suspension problems on a Formula One race car and applied new requirements for structural constraints critical to space exploration. This gave us a chance to push the capabilities of the software even further and help our customers solve even larger and more sophisticated problems.”
Notably, Autodesk’s generative design platform enables users to set various manufacturing constraints, for additive manufacturing, as well as CNC machining and casting.
In designing the conceptual lander, the JPL team utilized Autodesk’s generative design tools to create a number of structural components, including the internal structure that holds the scientific instruments and the external structure that connects the lander legs to the main payload box. Proving the benefits of generative design, the team successfully reduced the mass of the external structure by 35%.
Generative design also enabled the JPL team to iterate different design concepts for the lander quickly. That is, while most design teams take two to four months to introduce a revised design, generative design helped them to achieve results in just two to four weeks. “That flexibility and speed to update an existing problem definition rather than starting from scratch, combined with the ability for customers to specify manufacturing constraints, make it a real paradigm shift for people designing these kinds of structures,” said Karl Willis, Autodesk’s technology lead on the project.
The lander project is still very much in its development stage, as generative design in general is considered a “developmental research project” within JPL. Still, the fact that the innovative space exploration lab is working with the design software is promising, and we expect generative design will have a growing importance for NASA and other space organizations.