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AI software helped NASA dream up this spider-like interplanetary lander

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And it weighs far less than your average lander, too

Autodesk’s lander concept, made in collaboration with JPL
Image: Autodesk

Using an AI design process, engineers at software company Autodesk and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory came up with a new interplanetary lander concept that could explore distant moons like Europa and Enceladus. Its slim design weighs less than most of the landers that NASA has already sent to other planets and moons.

Autodesk announced its new innovative lander design today at the company’s conference in Las Vegas — revealing a spacecraft that looks like a spider woven from metal. The company says the idea to create the vehicle was sparked when Autodesk approached NASA to validate a lander prototype it had been working on. After looking at Autodesk’s work, JPL and the company decided to form a design team — comprised of five engineers from Autodesk and five from JPL — to come up with a new way to design landers.

NASA is starting to think about ways to land on distant moons in our Solar System that may harbor oceans underneath their crusts. Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one such candidate, as it may have the right conditions to support life in its unseen waters. And NASA has already studied concepts for landers to touch down on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, in order to sample the world’s ice to see if it might host life.

An artistic rendering of the JPL / Autodesk lander on the surface of Europa
Image: Autodesk

The lander collaboration with Autodesk was mostly experimental, with JPL giving the company a very clear goal: figure out a way to reduce the weight of a deep-space lander. When it comes to space travel, the best materials to withstand the harshness of space are things like titanium and aluminum, but these metals can be heavy. And the more a vehicle weighs, the more difficult and more expensive it is to launch into space. So shaving pounds can help reduce the overall cost and complexity of a mission. Weight reduction also allows for the opportunity to add more instruments and sensors to a lander, to gather more valuable science data.

“When we initially talked to them, they said reductions in mass of 10 percent are not all that interesting to us,” Mark Davis, Autodesk’s senior director of industry research, tells The Verge. “If you can get on the order 20 to 30 percent, that’s a game changer for us. So that was an initial target we set.”

To make the lander, Autodesk used its own artificial intelligence software, which can develop hundreds of different designs in short periods of time. Known as generative design, it’s a technique that allows engineers to come up with computer-generated concepts for a project by inputting a set of constraints that the software must adhere to. For the lander, Autodesk and JPL input the types of temperatures and forces a lander might experience when traveling through deep space. They also input variables like the kinds of materials that the software should experiment with, such as titanium and aluminum. And they asked the software to explore different types of manufacturing methods, including casting and 3D printing.

The chassis of the lander being manufactured
Image: Autodesk

“You can consider all these things at the same time,” says Davis. “You load the forces and the requirements, and then the computer goes and thinks about it.”

After a month and a half of tinkering with the software’s designs, JPL and Autodesk settled on the spider-like concept, which consists of three main sections. The first is the internal structure — or the gut — that holds the suite of instruments for studying distant worlds. This piece is 3D-printed out of aluminum. The second section is the main body of the spacecraft, known as the chassis, which provides overall structural support. This piece, which is made by casting aluminum in a mold, sits on the third vital section: the aluminum legs made by a 3D milling machine. The entire thing is about seven and a half feet wide, and three feet tall.

Overall, Autodesk says it was able to decrease the lander’s weight by 35 percent compared to the baseline design for other JPL landers. Autodesk says the lander weighs around 176 pounds, which is relatively light compared to NASA’s latest Mars lander InSight, which is around 770 pounds. And Autodesk claims the internal structure can support a payload of scientific instruments that weighs up to 250 pounds.

From design to finish, Davis says the entire process took about a year and a half, and that the team was able to rapidly iterate on the design during the first month with the Autodesk software. While this particular lander isn’t going to space, Davis hopes to continue working with JPL to find ways to incorporate generative design into the planning for their missions. “Bringing in a new thing like generative design, it’s a disruption and they have to be careful about how they introduce it and give engineers the confidence it’s a valid way to proceed,” says Davis. “It’s quite a culture change exercise.”