There are many kinds of engineers in the space sector. Their job is to design components, software, and systems, improving on current designs and creating totally new ones.
Engineers are responsible for designing things. A spacecraft is made of many different subsystems which are developed by specialist teams, so there are many different kinds of engineers needed. We cannot list them all here, but these are a few of the most common types.
Structural engineers research, analyse and design spacecraft structures. They are concerned with things like ensuring that a satellite is able to withstand the vibrations of a rocket launch, that its panels will not crack as they expand in the heat of the sun and that its solar cells will deploy correctly in orbit.
Software engineers write code that operates and monitors rockets and spacecraft, and supports the design and manufacturing process. They develop algorithms to transmit data billions of miles without any errors and optimise code to work on computer hardware that is many years older than what is available today.
Systems engineers look at the spacecraft as a whole. They work with the client to design the mission and define the requirements of the spacecraft. They then work with all the different teams to make sure all the various components fit together and operate properly to create the final result.
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All the key systems of a spacecraft require electricity, and electrical engineers must design these systems to operate for tens of years in the hostile environment of space without any maintenance or upgrades. Their systems have to be able to handle the effects of radiation, cosmic rays, and plasma, and there must not be any electromagnetic interference from other pieces of equipment or the Earth’s atmosphere.
Propulsion engineers design methods of propelling launchers and space vehicles. This means not only the rockets that launch spacecraft into orbit, but also maneuvering thrusters and re-entry systems. Maximising efficiency is key as spacecraft can’t refuel and also need to minimise mass.
Engineers work closely with clients, scientists, contractors, and other specialists. They can be involved in research and development, testing, manufacturing, or maintenance, and might:
Design components using computer aided design (CAD) software
Run simulations on components to analyse how they respond to things like stresses, heating, radiation, and vibration and update the designs accordingly
Investigate the properties of materials like titanium, aluminium, and carbon fibre to work out where each one is best used to minimise cost and weight
Work with workshop technicians to ensure that components can be manufactured easily and reliably
Perform tests on models or finished components to verify the results of computer simulations and test the performance of new designs
Use test data and science knowledge to improve the accuracy and usefulness of simulation programs
Write code to test components and ensure they respond correctly to transmitted commands
Write technical reports and manuals to explain designs and document the results of testing
Prepare bids in order to win contracts
Supervise project teams to keep a project on schedule and in budget
Give progress reports and presentations to clients and senior managers
Working Hours & Conditions
Most engineers work between 35 and 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Some companies offer flexi-time which allows you take time off on one day and make it up on another. Core hours that everyone has to work are typically 11am to 2pm.
Engineers spend a lot of time working in offices with computers, but will also work in clean rooms, workshops and laboratories. They may also go on trips to meet clients, inspect contractor's’ facilities, and attend conferences.
Skills & Qualifications
As an engineer, you will need to be good at:
Maths, science, and IT
Teamwork and communication
Project management, budgeting, and meeting deadline
Requirements vary between jobs, but you'll normally need to complete a degree in science or engineering, and sometimes a postgraduate course too. Many employers have graduate trainee programmes to recruit people directly from university and give them further training.
An alternative is to start off as an engineering technician by completing an HNC/HND or foundation degree in an engineering subject. You can then become a fully qualified engineer with further training on the job.