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Scientists think the most likely places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system are the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth. Getting landers to these distant areas presents far greater design and engineering challenges.
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, and it has to have enough fuel to get where it’s going. Weight at liftoff is a critical consideration. 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.
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.
Generative design is often associated with 3D printing, which is well-suited for the complex, organic-looking shapes that the software produces based on user specifications. But the software also gives users the ability to set constraints for their other manufacturing processes. “We now have the ability to help our customers solve for their multiple manufacturing constraints simultaneously, which adds CNC machining and casting options in addition to 3D printing,” explains Davis.
While other software programs can optimize a single part for stiffness and weight, Autodesk’s generative design technology is unique in its ability to allow customers to take into consideration alternate design strategies and produce an entire array of viable solutions, rather than just a single optimized version.
For the lander project, the JPL team explored the use of experimental generative design technology for multiple 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. The team has been able reduce the mass of the external structure by 35% compared with the baseline design that they started with.