Autodesk, NASA rethink interplanetary lander design

NASA teamed up with Autodesk to consider what it would take get a lander all the way to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

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SHELBY THORNER

In 2012, the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars, thanks in part to the designers and engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now, the NASA JPL has set its sights on a greater challenge: getting a lander all the way to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. To get closer to that goal, researchers from the JPL teamed up with Autodesk to explore new approaches to designing and manufacturing interplanetary landers. They built a concept lander, which was unveiled Tuesday at Autodesk University in Las Vegas.

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The lander is the result of a multi-year collaboration and was built using a custom application of Autodesk's generative design technology. The goal was to build a structure that could withstand the harsh conditions of space and travel extremely long distances.

While Mars is 35 million miles away, Jupiter is 365 million miles away, and Saturn is another 381 million miles past that. To travel that distance and accomplish an exploration mission, the lander would have to have enough fuel. Keeping the structure lightweight is key. It would also have to be able to perform complicated operations in extremely cold temperatures and withstand extreme radiation levels.

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Generative design helps designers quickly explore all possible design variations for a product. The method gives designers different options for their product designs based on their set of constraints -- such as materials being used, the product's weight or manufacturing methods. Leveraging the cloud and machine learning, it can quickly offer dozens or even hundreds of options.

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In April, Autodesk incorporated generative design into its product development tool, Autodesk Fusion 360 Ultimate. For this project, researchers used a more conceptually advanced version of the software that Autodesk developed for experimental capacities.

"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," Mark Davis, the senior director of industry research at Autodesk, explained in a statement. "We then applied it to the problems JPL needed to consider. 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."

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Specifically, the JPL team used generative design for multiple structural components, including the internal structure that holds the scientific instruments, as well as the external structure that connects the lander legs to the main payload box. Compared to the baseline design they started with, the team was able to reduce the mass of the external structure by 35 percent.

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