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NASA Uses AI and 3D Printing to Design and Manufacture Evolved Structures for Space Missions

AI-assisted design is revolutionizing the aerospace industry, enabling the creation of complex, bespoke spacecraft and mission hardware that are stronger, lighter, and faster to develop than their human-designed counterparts. At NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center, Research Engineer Ryan McClelland has developed a system of specialized, one-off parts called “evolved structures” using commercially available AI software.

These structures are created by inputting the mission’s requirements, with the AI connects the dots to produce the design. The resulting parts can save up to two-thirds of the weight compared to traditional components, are milled by commercial vendors, and can be developed and analysed in as little as one week! These evolved structures are already being used in various NASA missions, including astrophysics balloon observatories, Earth-atmosphere scanners, planetary instruments, and even the Mars Sample Return mission.

AI designed aluminium scaffold
An aluminium scaffold for the back of the EXCITE telescope – planned to make a test flight as soon as autumn 2023. The curved reinforcing structures were designed by Ryan McClelland to resist off-centered forces.
Credits: Henry Dennis

The potential use cases for AI-assisted design in the aerospace industry are vast, as larger components such as structural trusses, complex systems that move or unfold, or advanced precision optics can be developed using 3D printing with resins and metals. These techniques could enable NASA and commercial partners to build larger components in orbit that would not otherwise fit in a standard launch vehicle. Additionally, AI-assisted design combined with in-situ resource utilization will advance In-space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities, which is a key priority for U.S. space infrastructure development as defined by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s ISAM National Strategy and ISAM Implementation Plan.

The benefits of AI-assisted design extend beyond space exploration, as it is a growing industry with everything from equipment parts to entire car and motorcycle chassis being developed by computers. However, NASA’s use case for AI-assisted design is particularly strong, as they make thousands of bespoke parts every year, and these evolved structures lower the risk and stress concentrations compared to human designs. The potential for AI-assisted design in the aerospace industry is vast, and it will undoubtedly lead to the creation of stronger, lighter, and faster components that will revolutionize space exploration.

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