CAD in Space: How CAD is Being Used by the Space Industry

Phillip Keane | Comments | May 22, 2018

NASA/German Aerospace Center (DLR)SOFIA observatory. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

We’ve seen before how SOLIDWORKS has been used to design and develop hardware for use in a range of environments, including land, sea and air.

So, you may be surprised to learn that SOLIDWORKS has been used to develop products for use a little farther from home—for use in space.

In this article, we are going to take a look at a few companies and agencies that have been using various SOLIDWORKS features to help explore the final frontier.

Astrobotic Technology, Inc.

First up in our list of intrepid space companies is Astrobotic Technology,Inc.

Astrobotic was formed by robotics pioneer and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Professor William L. “Red” Whittaker with the specific goal of winning the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP). You may recall that the GLXP was formed to encourage private industry to develop, launch and land rovers on the lunar surface, with prizes paid out to the companies that achieve key technical milestones. Astrobotic, which has been developing the Peregrine lunar lander and working on a lunar robot with CMU, received prize money for three milestones.

Astrobotic chose to use SOLIDWORKS because of the software’s robust visualization and communication, and the fact that it integrates with Mastercam machining software. In addition, many engineers at CMU are familiar with SOLIDWORKS, which made selecting the software a no-brainer.

“CMU is a SOLIDWORKS university, so we all have experience using the software,” said Steve Huber, chief operating officer. “We view SOLIDWORKS as the CAD leader, and the ease of the SOLIDWORKS user interface is important to us. When tools are accessible, members of our staff can express their innate creativity more freely. From conceptual design to rendering to machining, we use SOLIDWORKS for everything we do.”

Rover camera attachment. (Image courtesy of Astrobotic.)

SuccessMetrics

  • Selected by NASA as one of three industry partners for development of robotic lunar landing capability under the Lunar CATALYST initiative
  • Established itself as the leading Google Lunar XPRIZE team and was selected for three out of three Milestone Prizes, largely based on the strength of its technology development progress
  • Developed a variety of robots for space-related uses
  • Attracted 18 NASA contracts to date for space robotics development

Alliance Spacesystems, LLC

Remember Spirit and Opportunity? They were the two Mars rovers designed by NASA for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program. The rovers are particularly noteworthy because they far exceeded their anticipated service lives of 90 days. Spirit lasted 20 times longer than was predicted, while Opportunity is still roaming the Red Planet more than 14 years after it landed. That makes the Opportunityrover, which has traveled over 45km on the Martian surface as of January 2018, the longest running space rover ever.

MER rover arm assembly. (Image courtesy of Alliance Spacesystems.)

What does SOLIDWORKS have to do with the MER program? Well, the robotic arm on both rovers was designed and simulated in SOLIDWORKS. The arms contain an array of sensors designed to help the rovers conduct their Martian experiments. Using SOLIDWORKS, engineers at Alliance Spacesystems were able to compress the iterative cycle as well as reduce the weight of the components, which is obviously highly desirable in an industry where the mass budget is the design driver.

Alliance Spacesystems talks about CAD.

“We were searching for every gram of weight, every millimeter of space,” said Brett Lindenfeld, director of engineering at Alliance Spacesystems. “The ability of our analysts to use the simulation software for stress and thermal analysis enabled them to backstop our designers and collaborate efficiently to optimize the design. The team was able to reduce the mass of the robotic arm by 20 percent—the automotive equivalent of the space needed for a car engine and transmission, while keeping rework to less than 1 percent. We were fast but still produced a higher quality, more innovative design.”

Success Metrics

  • Selected by NASA as one of three industry partners for development of robotic lunar landing capability under the Lunar CATALYST initiative
  • Established itself as the leading Google Lunar XPRIZE team and was selected for three out of three Milestone Prizes, largely based on the strength of its technology development progress
  • Developed a variety of robots for space-related uses
  • Attracted 18 NASA contracts to date for space robotics development

SE Corp VAB Fluid Simulation

Not all of these stories involve things being strapped to a rocket and fired up into the sky. This case shows how SOLIDWORKS was used to increase safety for those working on the ground in the famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Using SOLIDWORKS Flow Simulation, analysis consultancy firm SE Corp was able to simulate what would happen if rocket fuel ignited in the VAB in order to assess the safety and emergency escape procedures at the facility.

Simulating for safety. (Image courtesy of SE Corp.)

By modeling the VAB, SE Corp was able to simulate fuel exhaust gases and ground-level thermal radiation, as well as how various configurations of the VAB would affect an explosion. The company also simulated the effects of the sea breeze coming from the Atlantic Ocean.

“The CFD model predicted where and when these exhaust gases would become lethal in and around the VAB,” said Sean Stapf, founder of SE Corp. “By quantifying the time and severity of structural and personnel exposures to exhaust temperature, velocity, pressure and concentration, NASA could improve safety and emergency response planning.”

Success Metrics

  • Completed NASA VAB CFD simulation in just 24 hours
  • Shortened solution time with smart elements
  • Produced results that helped NASA improve safety planning
  • Won NASA’s Space Flight Awareness Team Award

Deutsches SOFIA Institut

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s only flying astronomical observatory, is a collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

SOFIA is a repurposed Boeing 747 SP with a giant hole cut into the side for the 2.7-meter infrared telescope to peer out of. The beauty of SOFIA is that it is completely mobile and can be deployed to capture astronomical events that may not be possible with fixed telescopes. Of course, being a mobile telescope means that certain measures are needed to ensure stable operations during flight.

The vibrational and rotational isolation systems, tracking cameras and telescope/tracking system interface were developed by the Deutsches SOFIA Institut, which is based at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. SOLIDWORKS was integral to the development of several of these systems.

You may recognize the interface assembly image that follows—it is featured on the splash screen while SOLIDWORKS 2018 is loading.

 

Interface assembly for SOFIA. (Image courtesy of DSI.)

“The SOFIA aircraft is constantly shaking and moving, and the telescope systems must perform across a wide temperature and pressure range,” said Jan Drendel, who worked on the interface between the aircraft’s three tracking/positioning cameras and the telescope at the University of Stuttgart. The system is subjected to the California heat when on the ground and temperatures close to -40°C when in the stratosphere. “Using SOLIDWORKS Simulation tools, I conducted linear static stress and thermal expansion studies on the camera/telescope interface components,” explained Drendel.

Success Metrics

  • Supported important achievements in astronomical discovery
  • Optimized telescope/tracking cameras interface
  • Decreased weight of parts by using simulation tools
  • Facilitated collaboration and communication across development team

So, there you have it. We have seen four examples of how the space industry is using SOLIDWORKS to reduce weight, compress iteration times and even improve safety for ground crews.

Do you work for a space company or agency that uses SOLIDWORKS to help explore the final frontier?

Let us know in the comments below!


About the Author

keane 2

Phillip Keane is currently studying his PhD at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His background is in aerospace engineering, and his current studies are focused on the use of 3D-printed components in spaceflight. He previously worked at Rolls-Royce and Airbus Military and served as an intern for Made In Space and the European Southern Observatory.

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