Space Systems Engineer at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd
What does your job involve?
The job of a systems engineer encompasses a variety of tasks and responsibilities.
At the beginning of a project you have to do various analyses and trade offs which determine the initial mission parameters such as spacecraft orbit, available power, environmental conditions and contact times with the ground station.
The systems engineer is responsible for communicating these parameters to the various specialists as a starting point for their design. Once the design process has begun the systems engineer has to make sure that all subsystems (a spacecraft consists of various subsystems such as thermal, structure, communication, propulsion, etc.) work together. That means you have to ensure that each subsystem design is in line with the other, that interfaces match and that dimensions and masses are within their limits. Therefore the systems engineer has to have a pretty good overview of the whole design to detect possible discrepancies at an early stage of the project.
At a later stage of the project the systems engineer takes part in testing the spacecraft. Once the spacecraft is in orbit the systems engineer supports the so called commissioning phase which is the time when the spacecraft is made ready for operation.
What interested you in working in the space sector?
Working as a systems engineer in the space sector means your work is challenging and interesting every day. In contrast to other industries you cannot buy a spacecraft off the shelf, there is usually just one of a kind hence there is no routine work since every project differs from the other. Moreover once the spacecraft is launched there is no way to repair or replace equipment, so you have to make sure that once the spacecraft is launched it does work. In addition to that you have to ensure the spacecraft survives the harsh space environment throughout its mission lifetime; radiation, space debris and extreme temperatures just to name few. For me there is no other industry that encompasses so many challenges at once!
What do you do in a typical day?
My days look different depending on the project phase. In the beginning there is a lot of analysis and design work. As the project evolves the spacecraft needs to be assembled and tested. In my current project we are still in the design phase. That means I do a lot of analysis with excel or dedicated “space” programmes to evaluate if the spacecraft is designed according to the requirements. During that phase, frequent meetings with the specialists are required to understand which design is required to achieve the mission objectives and to ensure the designs of the different subsystems are aligned.
Are there any other interesting aspects to your work?
What always surprises me is that the space industry is a pretty small world and everybody knows one another. Every national and international meeting, conference or event you attend you see familiar faces. It makes you feel part of a big family - a space family. I like that feeling. Building something for space is a team effort and a team works best if the team members are familiar with each other.
Building something for space is often not just a national effort. There are some projects which require many different countries to work together like some of the major scientific missions or the international space station. Consequently you end up meeting people from different places around the world who do not just have a different academic background than you but also a different cultural mindset.
What is it about your job that fascinates or inspires you?
Can there be anything more fascinating than building spacecrafts? I design and build things that will travel into space! This keeps me motivated and I get up every morning with a smile on my face.
The space sector is also a brilliant example of international collaboration. There is never a question about origin or cultural background. We are all one team working together for the same goal and it simply doesn’t matter where you come from. All that matters is how we can make it work.
Why is what you do important?
It might not be obvious to everyone but satellites play a huge role in our daily life without us even noticing it. Television, Mobile phones, GPS, weather forecasts just to name a few commercial applications. There are many more commercial applications as well as scientific ones. Satellites do not only facilitate our daily life but also help us to better understand our planet and solar system and to draw conclusions about our way of life.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space?
A technical or scientific degree is a good start.
What I learned during the past years is to always keep your spirit! Don’t be too hard on yourself if plans don’t work out as you thought. There are many ways leading to your dream job and they all look different. Good determination and setting the right goals will lead you anywhere you want to go.
Do not forget to be patient and try to learn as much as you can on the way. A placement in industry can give you a good idea of what to expect and what it means to work in the space sector. Moreover it will give you valuable space contacts which might be helpful in the future.
Maybe your university offers projects like a “Cube Sat” group which you can join? Building your own satellite as a student is a great experience and after all the theory it is the hands-on experience which is the most rewarding.