Autodesk, the software company behind AutoCAD, teamed up with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to look at new ways to create an interplanetary lander that could potentially touch down on the moons of Saturn or Jupiter. When Mark Davis, the senior director of industry research at Autodesk, first talked to JPL about the collaboration, NASA wasn’t that interested. But when Autodesk showed that it was possible to achieve a 30 % or more performance improvement by way of new designs and materials, Davis’ team had JPL’s attention.
Because of the high costs and risks of space travel, NASA engineers tend to stick with what would work. That means using tried and tested materials like aluminium and titanium. But traditional designs and materials are often very heavy, and in a field where every gram matters, shedding a bit of weight means adding more sensors and equipment. To push lander designs in new directions, Autodesk is turning to its machine learning technology to iterate faster than it may otherwise be able to.
Autodesk refers to this new process qe generative design or a design that uses machine intelligence and cloud computing that creates a broad set of solutions based on the limitations set by engineers. Autodesk has used this system, available on its Fusion 360 software, in racing. Generative design allows engineers to turn around design solutions in as little as two-to-four weeks, much faster than the standard two-to-four months. Either way, Autodesk is hoping its design technology would help JPL put a lander on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, paving their way for human settlements.
That’s not to say that this would be the first time humans explored Jupiter or Saturn. In October of 1997, NASA, along with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, launched the Cassini-Huygens probe to study Saturn. It took the probe 6 years and 261 days to reach the planet, but the photos that it sent back were remarkable. It was on Sept 15th, 2017 that NASA last had contact with Cassini. And currently, the Juno probe is orbiting Jupiter and has given us insight as to what’s going on inside the gas planet. To reach the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, around 365-million and 746-million miles away depending on orbit respectively, will always prove to be extremely challenging, but any headway that NASA can make would be welcome if it means the potential for human settlement out in our own solar system.