Autodesk and NASA Team Up for Space Habitats with Earthly Spin-Offs
Phillip Keane posted on July 31, 2018 |
NASA builds a Jersey barrier with its space habitat printer.

Most people know about SkunkWorks, the Lockheed advanced research project formed in WWII for rapid innovation and cutting-edge research.

But have you heard of NASA’s SwampWorks? Like its spiritual namesake, this research environment too is focused on designing and building bleeding-edge projects, but with the aim of space colonization. And Autodesk has been helping out.

In particular, the team at Kennedy Space Center is primarily focusing on insitu resource utilization (ISRU) of Martian materials.

Swamp Works plans on utilizing 3D printing and robotic collectors to build structures on Mars, using local regolith, dust, small rocks and recycled plastic.

The 3D printer designed by the Swamp Works team.
The 3D printer designed by the Swamp Works team.

With these locally found and manmade waste materials from the mission being recycled, NASA has developed a type of cement for construction. ISRU is essential for life on Mars, as its too costly to transport building materials from Earth, and sturdy structures are needed to shield against radiation, the elements and micrometeorites.

Using Autodesk tools, NASA have been experimenting with topology optimization and generative design to design the strongest structures while at the same time conserving raw materials.

For the design of the structures, the SwampWorks team used Fusion 360. For redesign and to ensure manufacturability, the team used PowerShape. And for tool path generation, the team used PowerMill5-axis machining software.

Before the structures can even be considered for space, though, they need to be demonstrated on Earth, and SwampWorks has already manufactured items using this method. Just recently, it manufactured a Jersey barrier, which is designed to separate highway lanes and is typically made out of concrete.

Jersey barriers designed by the Swamp Works team.
Jersey barriers designed by the Swamp Works team.

“Additive manufacturing technology has the potential to revolutionize the way we do construction here on Earth, too,” said Massimiliano Moruzzi of Autodesk’s computational science research group. “If we can repurpose plastic pollution and use readily available natural resources to robotically print houses on Mars, we can use the same approach to sustainably build streets, sidewalks, and even playgrounds here at home.”

In addition to using Fusion 360 for designing the barrier and space architecture concepts, the team used the CAD package to design the printer itself, which you may notice from the picture is freestanding with no support structure—a useful feature where mass and volume budgets on spacecraft are an issue. Autodesk also developed the software to control the printer’s industrial robot arm, which was fitted with a specialized end effector designed by NASA.

You can see more information on the collaboration between NASA and Autodesk in the video below.

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