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.
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.
Robotic engineers work on designing and testing robotic systems that can be used to complete missions that would be high risk for human involvement. Work from robotic engineers has also allowed us to complete missions in conditions that humans are unable to survive. Robotic engineers combine the skills of mechanical, electrical and software engineering to build complex systems such as the Canadarm used on the Space Shuttle and the Curiosity Mars Rover which has been operating and collecting data on Mars for almost 6 years.
ESA plan to launch their ExoMars rover in 2020 with one aim being the search for evidence that it once supported life.
ExoMars has seen plenty of contributions from UK based companies and academic institutions including Airbus leading the build. Collaboration between UCL, the University of Aberystwyth, Birbeck College and the University of Leicester has contributed to the panoramic camera system on the rover. The University of Leicester, Bradford University and SFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory are all key contributors to the CCD camera on the Raman Laser Spectrometer.
An assembly engineer will work on the construction of the system, integrating the individual components that have been created into one cohesive system. They will also often be involved in testing the system throughout the development process to ensure that the system will be able to withstand the environment that it will be subjected to.
A radio engineer works on the equipment needed for the broadcasting and receiving radio frequencies, this is essential for communication with spacecraft and satellite systems. They also maintain, monitor and repair broadcasting systems while they are in use for.
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 deadlines
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.