One of the most exciting and innovative reveals at Autodesk’s annual user conference – Autodesk University – in November 2018, was the NASA concept interplanetary lander: “perhaps the most complicated structure ever created using generative design.”
Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in collaboration with Autodesk, the lander is being hailed as our best chance of finding life beyond Earth. With little evidence of life on Mars, NASA’s scientists think the best chances of finding signs of life are on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
But the distance to these moons is much greater than Mars. Jupiter is 365 million miles from Earth, while Saturn is another 381 million miles beyond that, whereas Mars is a mere 35 million miles away! This presents incredible design and engineering challenges. Not only would any interplanetary lander need sufficient fuel to reach its destination, once there it must withstand subzero temperatures and radiation levels thousands of times greater than those on Earth.
To meet these challenges, JPL and Autodesk have come together for a multi-year research project which will enable JPL to explore new approaches to design and manufacturing processes for space exploration that leverage a custom application of Autodesk’s generative design technology.
What is generative design?
According to Autodesk:
“Generative design mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design. Designers or engineers input design goals into generative design software, along with parameters such as materials, manufacturing methods, and cost constraints. Unlike topology optimization, the software explores all the possible permutations of a solution, quickly generating design alternatives. It tests and learns from each iteration what works and what doesn’t.”
Generative design, often associated with 3D printing and also known as additive manufacturing, is already available as a commercial offering called Fusion 360, but Autodesk will work with JPL to develop more advanced, custom versions of the software and try out new approaches and processes.
Meeting the Challenges of Deep Space Travel
A key challenge for the JPL design team is ensuring that the structural payload weight of the lander at liftoff is minimized so that the scientific payload and research instruments can be maximized.
With little room for failure, generative design is unique in that it allows designers to consider alternate design strategies and explore a variety of solutions.
“What they (JPL) do is carefully infuse new technology into their processes,” says Karl Willis, Autodesk’s technology lead on the project. “They know they have to explore new ways to do things while keeping risk at a minimum.”
For example, working with Autodesk and using an array of solutions (including 3D printing, CNC milling and casting), the JPL team and has seen a reduction in the mass of the external lander structure by 35% compared with the baseline design the team started with. Generative design is also iterative, meaning that designers can create new designs quickly as the original design matures or new environmental data becomes available. This can reduce the design time from months to weeks.
All images courtesy of Autodesk.