NASA is using AI to design spacecraft

The US space agency is using artificial intelligence to create strong and lightweight components for its spacecraft and mission hardware. The bonus is that they look like pieces from a sci-fi movie alien spaceship.

NASA is employing artificial intelligence to design stronger and lighter components for its spacecraft and mission-ready hardware. Developed by the Research Engineer Ryan McClelland team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, these "evolved structures" are created through a generative algorithm using a precise brief of the requirements for the part, including its load and what forces it will be exposed to.

The AI comes up with the design, which is then tested to verify requirements and fabricate the component. The resulting parts, once milled with a traditional CNC process, look alien due to their uncanny shapes that resemble the components of a typical sci-fi alien spaceship. Or, as NASA itself put it, "bones left from some alien species".

"They look somewhat alien and weird," McClelland said, "but once you see them in function, it really makes sense."

The design process is faster than what humans can achieve, producing a structure from design to production in about one week.

"If you're a motorcycle or car company," McClelland said, "there may be only one chassis design that you're going to produce, and then you'll manufacture a bunch of them. Here at NASA, we make thousands of bespoke parts every year."

McClelland emphasizes that despite the AI's ability to produce complex and innovative designs, human input is still necessary to ensure that the structures meet the mission's specifications and can be safely deployed in space.

"Human intuition knows what looks right", said McClelland, "but left to itself, the algorithm can sometimes make structures too thin."

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