A collaborative effort to create the concept for an interplanetary lander was unveiled at Autodesk World held this week in Las Vegas. The collaboration would be between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and engineering software maker Autodesk.
To accomplish a mission like this, an interplanetary lander needs to perform complicated operational functions in temperatures far below zero and withstand radiation levels thousands of times greater than on Earth. But first, it has to have enough fuel to get where it’s going.
In space exploration, weight at liftoff is one of the most critical considerations. 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.
Now scientists think the most likely places we’ll find signs of life in our solar system lie on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. But these gas giants lie much further away. At 35 million miles, the trip to Mars was short compared to the 365-million-mile journey to Jupiter. And Saturn is another 381 million miles past that. Getting landers to these distant areas presents far greater design and engineering challenges.
To meet those challenges, JPL and Autodesk have engaged in a multi-year collaborative research project so that JPL can explore new approaches to design and manufacturing processes for space exploration, with the custom application of Autodesk’s generative design technology.
Mark Davis, the senior director of industry research at Autodesk, was part of the team that first approached JPL about a collaboration.
“They were clear that they weren’t interested in incremental gains: if they were only able to improve performance by 10 percent, they basically weren’t interested,” he said. “If we could deliver software tools to help them achieve a performance improvement of 30 percent or more, then we had their attention. This project demonstrates that Autodesk technologies may deliver mass savings at this level.”
In some industries, it can be considered a good thing to “fail fast” or get to a “minimum viable product” as quickly as possible, then improve it. But in space exploration, failure comes at a high cost. A mission typically only has one shot at success, with few viable backup plans. It’s understandable why the teams at JPL are careful when considering new processes. They stick with what works—qualified materials like titanium and aluminum that they know will hold up in the harsh conditions of space, and manufacturing processes like CNC machining that are mission-proven.
At the same time, they need to explore what new technologies can do for them, or risk being made obsolete by other companies. It’s always a balancing act between what’s proven and what’s possible.
Within the company, JPL’s Atelier division is the team charged with trying out new approaches and processes, then recommending the ones that hold promise to the teams working on specific missions.
“What they do is carefully infuse new technology into their processes,” said 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.”
Generative design is a relatively new design approach that uses machine intelligence and cloud computing to quickly generate a broad set of design solutions that fit within the specific constraints set by engineers.
A commercial form of generative design technology is available today in Fusion 360, Autodesk’s cloud-based product development platform. Davis and his team in Autodesk’s Office of the CTO continue to develop more conceptual advanced versions of the software for use in experimental capacities, such as with JPL.
“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.”