NASA AI-Designed 3D Printed Parts for Groundbreaking Exoplanet Mission


In a recent episode of “The Cool Parts Show,” NASA AI’s innovative use of artificial intelligence in the design of 3D printed parts for the EXCITE (Exoplanet Climate Infrared Telescope) mission was explored. This mission, set to launch in 2025, aims to send a massive balloon into Earth’s atmosphere to study exoplanets. The mission’s unique requirements challenged engineers to create components that are not only lightweight and stiff but also able to withstand parachute deployment upon re-entry. NASA engineers leveraged generative design, a process that utilizes AI, to rapidly iterate through design variations and optimize the components for these demanding criteria.

NASA AI-Powered Generative Design

Generative design is a revolutionary approach that harnesses AI to create highly efficient and unconventional geometric forms. Rather than relying on human designers to manually craft component designs, generative design begins with a set of requirements, such as lightweight, stiffness, and available space. The AI-driven tool then iterates through thousands of design possibilities within these constraints, resulting in a geometric form that best satisfies all requirements.

NASA’s decision to embrace generative design for the creation of critical components, like the brackets for the EXCITE mission, is driven by the unique challenges posed by space exploration missions. Unlike industries that manufacture standardized components, NASA often deals with thousands of unique structures and parts for various missions. Their costs are heavily driven by non-recurring engineering, which necessitates rapid design iterations and optimization. Generative design accelerates this process, allowing engineers to arrive at the best design quickly and efficiently.

The EXCITE Mission

The EXCITE mission is set to launch a balloon the size of a football field into Earth’s atmosphere, carrying a telescope that will orbit the South Pole to observe distant stars and their planets. This telescope will study the atmospheres of exoplanets, providing valuable insights into the characteristics of these distant worlds. To achieve this ambitious goal, the mission required brackets capable of supporting vital telescope components, while remaining lightweight to facilitate the balloon’s ascent and strong enough to endure the parachute’s deployment upon re-entry.

For the EXCITE mission, NASA engineers used generative design in Autodesk Fusion 360 to create two critical brackets, one made of aluminum and the other from titanium. These brackets were designed to hold a mirror at a precise angle and a cryostat chamber, which maintains the low temperature needed for the spectroscopy detector. The aluminum bracket was designed to withstand the violent parachute deployment during re-entry, and the titanium bracket had to be lightweight due to machining challenges associated with its size and complexity.

Generative design significantly accelerated the design process for these critical components. While a human designer might spend days or even weeks developing a single design, the AI-driven generative design tool can iterate at a staggering rate of approximately 3,000 iterations per hour. This speed is transformative, shifting the engineer’s focus from sketching and extruding flat designs to ensuring that all requirements are correctly defined.

Working with AI in generative design requires a new level of collaboration between engineers and AI tools. Engineers must thoroughly define the design requirements, including stiffness, weight, and available space, to get the desired results. This approach emphasizes the importance of getting the requirements right from the start, and then engineers collaborate with the AI tool to achieve the desired design.

Generative design often results in complex, intricate, and counterintuitive forms that lend themselves well to additive manufacturing. Unlike traditional design methods, generative design allows for the creation of optimized geometries with hollow structures that reduce weight without adding extra waste. NASA’s choice to utilize generative design in combination with 3D printing is driven by the mission’s need for components that are not just optimized for their requirements but are also readily manufacturable through additive manufacturing processes.

The 3D printed brackets, manufactured by 3D Systems, underwent rigorous testing to ensure their fitness for the EXCITE mission. Vibration tests simulated the launch loads, while pull tests were conducted to determine the failure points. These tests provided validation for the effectiveness of generative design in creating components that could withstand the mission’s demands.

Future Prospects

NASA’s use of generative design is not limited to the EXCITE mission, and the agency is actively exploring more sophisticated additive-manufactured brackets for future missions. This approach aligns with NASA’s unique need for a wide variety of specialized structures and components, allowing engineers to develop parts faster and optimize them for specific requirements. The combination of generative design and additive manufacturing offers immense potential for revolutionizing the design and production of components for space missions.

NASA’s embrace of generative design powered by AI for the development of critical components represents a significant leap forward in space exploration technology. The agency’s use of this innovative approach is not only accelerating the design process but also leading to the creation of highly efficient and unconventional geometric forms. The EXCITE mission serves as a compelling example of how generative design, combined with additive manufacturing, can reshape the way components are developed for complex missions. As NASA continues to explore the possibilities of generative design, the future holds exciting prospects for more advanced and optimized structures in the world of space exploration.

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