At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, McClelland pioneered the design of specialized, one-of-a-kind components using commercially available AI software, creating hardware he has dubbed evolved structures.
Ryan McClelland, a research engineer, said that although they appear strange and alien, their use makes perfect sense.
A computer-assisted design (CAD) expert first sketches the surfaces where the part connects to the instrument or spacecraft, as well as any bolts and fittings for electronics and other hardware, according to the mission requirements. In order to prevent the algorithm from obstructing a laser beam or optical sensor, the designer might also need to block out a path. Finally, more complicated builds might call for areas where technicians’ hands can assemble and align components.
According to McClelland, once all restricted areas have been identified, the AI makes connections to produce complex structure designs in as little as an hour or two. “Human eyes are necessary for the algorithms,” he said.
According to him, these upgraded structures can be milled by industrial suppliers and can reduce weight by up to two-thirds when compared to conventional components. In as little as one week, you can complete the design, analysis, and fabrication of a prototype part, according to McClelland. It may move much more quickly than we are accustomed to.
In order to find potential points of failure, parts are also examined using NASA-standard validation software and procedures, according to McClelland. “We discovered that it actually reduces risk. Following these stress analyses, we discover that the algorithmically generated parts lack the stress concentrations present in human-designed components. When compared to parts produced by an expert human, the stress factors are almost ten times lower.
NASA missions in various stages of design and construction, such as astrophysics balloon observatories, Earth-atmosphere scanners, planetary instruments, space weather monitors, space telescopes, and even the Mars Sample Return mission, have adopted McClelland’s evolved components.
The EXoplanet Climate Infrared TElescope (EXCITE) mission, a balloon-borne telescope designed to study hot Jupiter-type exoplanets orbiting other stars, was developed by Goddard physicist Peter Nagler with the aid of evolved structures. The near-infrared spectrograph that EXCITE is currently building and testing will be used to make continuous observations of each planet’s orbit around its host star.