NASA is using AI to help design lighter parts

'The algorithms do need a human eye.'
NASA evolved structure spacecraft part
AI-assisted engineering helped construct advanced spacecraft parts like this one. NASA

NASA is enlisting artificial intelligence software to assist engineers in designing the next generation of spacecraft hardware, and real world results resemble the stuff of science fiction.

The agency utilized commercially available AI software at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. NASA states that research engineer Ryan McClelland, who worked on the new materials with the assistance of AI, has dubbed them “evolved structures.” They have already been used in the design and construction of astrophysics balloon observatories, space weather monitors, and space telescopes, as well as the Mars Sample Return mission and more.

Beforehand the evolved structures are created, a computer-assisted design (CAD) specialist first sets the new objects’ “off limits” parameters, such as where the parts connects to spacecraft or other instruments, as well as other specifications like bolt and fitting placements, additional hardware, and electronics. Once those factors are defined, AI software “connects the dots” to sketch out a potential new structural design, often within just two hours or less.

The finished products result in curious, unique forms that are up to two-thirds lighter than their purely human-designed counterparts. However, proposed forms generally require some human fine-tuning, Ryan McClellans makes sure to highlight. “The algorithms do need a human eye,” McClelland said. “Human intuition knows what looks right, but left to itself, the algorithm can sometimes make structures too thin.”

[Related: NASA just announced a plane with a radical wing design.]

Optimizing materials and hardware is especially important for NASA’s spacefaring projects, given each endeavor’s unique requirements and needs. As opposed to assembly line construction for mass produced items, almost every NASA part is unique, so shortening design and construction times with AI input expands the agency’s capabilities.

When combined with other production techniques like 3D-printing, researchers envision a time when larger parts could be constructed while astronauts are already in orbit, thus reducing costly payloads. Such assembly plans might even be employed during construction of permanent human bases on the moon and Mars.