When we watch movies about space exploration, we’re often given new-age looking spacecraft to fawn over, but the real-world equivalent is far less radical. This is because companies like NASA and JPL tend to favour materials and designs that they know will work, but these can often be quite expensive.
In order to rethink modern spacecraft, and interplanetary landers in particular, Autodesk (the company behind AutoCAD software) teamed up with NASA in order to create a futuristic looking lander that was also more energy and cost efficient.
They showcased the design earlier this week at the Autodesk University summit in Las Vegas, with a scaled version measuring 1 metre tall and 2.5 metres wide.
Interestingly, when Autodesk’s senior director of industry research Mark Davis, first approached JPL with this idea, they weren’t too keen. Their minds changed when Davis explained that their design could potentially achieve 30 percent better performance compared to what is currently being employed by NASA.
“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,” says Davis.
When it came to creating the new lander, Davis adds that a generative design approach was favoured. To that end it uses machine intelligence and cloud computing to quickly generate a broad set of design solutions that fit within the specific constraints set by engineers.
This kind of approach allows a design team to look at a far wider range of concepts while still sticking within the manufacturing and performance requirements dictated by the team or environment.
Generative design is not something only available to aerospace engineers, with a commercial version of it found within Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software. Autodesk also uses a more technical version of the software when it comes to designing Formula 1 cars, and created a custom iteration of that software to assist with this new project.
“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,” concludes Davis.
As for when this new lander design will be put into action, Autodesk says it hopes it will be used for NASA’s planned missions to explore planets further away from us like Jupiter or Saturn. Sadly though, it remains to be seen if such a mission will be undertaken in our lifetimes.