Engineering Inside:

2013 Issue 1
Space

Engineering to Infinity and Beyond

June 2013
Atlantis taking off

Atlantis taking off
Image credit: NASA

Imagine traveling through space, hundreds of miles above the Earth. The only thing between you and the cold, dark, space surrounding you is your spacecraft. Suddenly an alarm sounds! There is a problem with one of the control circuits.  You and your crew are in serious danger.  With a few quick flicks of a switch, a backup is activated and you are back on course — all thanks to the work of some dedicated engineers and computing professionals.

From the development of the first telescopes, to putting a rover on Mars, engineering has made it possible to reach great heights.  Aerospace engineering involves the design, development, manufacture, and testing of air and space vehicles, systems, and equipment.  Aerospace engineers are involved in the design and development of planes, satellites, space shuttles, rovers, telescopes and control systems, to name just a few. Their designs are used in many industries such as aviation, transportation, defense, or space exploration.

Engineers working in the aerospace industry can come from many different backgrounds including mechanical engineering, engineering physics, electrical engineering or even materials science. Aerospace engineers may take on a number of different roles in the field, and may specialize in one or more areas. For example, some engineers specialize in helicopters, engines, wing design, or fuel systems.

Curiosity rover

Curiosity rover
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mechanical engineers and aerospace engineers design the mechanical systems and components involved in air and space equipment or vehicles. They may design engines, wing folding mechanisms, lifts, landing gear, or door mechanisms.  They might also design mechanical components for rovers like the Curiosity, which enable them to traverse different landscapes and collect soil samples. Mechanical components of air and space vehicles must be tested to ensure they function properly in different environments and are safe to operate.

Structural engineers are responsible for designing the structure of air and space craft or satellites. These engineers focus on crafting the body, wings, or propeller of flight vehicles. Structural engineers must ensure that air and space craft can support their own weight and hold up under stress. They must conduct tests to make sure flight vehicles can withstand extreme pressure, temperature, speed, and weather conditions.

Wind tunnel test

Wind tunnel test
Image credit: NASA

Since testing with real craft can be expensive and unsafe, engineers often use simulations. Wind tunnels are often used to simulate flight conditions using model flight vehicles. A wind tunnel is a long tube where wind is blown through it at a certain speed. A model craft is then put inside the wind tunnel to see how the air moves around it. This provides the engineers with a good idea of how the vehicles will actually perform in real life.

Propulsion engineers develop the technologies that allow air and space craft to get off the ground, move forward, and maneuver in the sky or in space. Propulsion engineers need to develop engines powerful enough to get craft into the air. They also develop different types of propellant used to fuel air and space craft. Propulsion engineers must ensure that these vehicles reach their destination with the appropriate amount of fuel in the right amount of time. Propulsion engineers may specialize in specific areas such as thermodynamics, which is the relationship between heat and work.

Engineers specializing in aerodynamics focus on the way air moves around vehicles or missiles. Aerodynamics is what enables vehicles like planes and rockets to defy the laws of gravity. Engineers need to be able to assess structures to ensure that they have proper lift to get into the air. They must also make sure that there is not too much wind resistance, or drag, holding vehicles back.  Aerodynamics engineers pay close attention to the shape of different parts of an aircraft such as wings, propellers, or rudders, also known as airfoil, to optimize vehicles’ performance.

Air and space vehicles such as planes, shuttles, or rovers, have systems in place that allow their movement to be controlled.  Guidance, navigation and control (GNC) engineers develop the tools and systems that determine how these vehicles are operated.  Electronic systems control the path, location, velocity, rotation and acceleration of aerospace vehicles.  These systems can help make the vehicles easier for the operator to control, save fuel, and reduce turbulence. GNC engineers also develop technology such as steering mechanisms and thrusters to keep vehicles stable and on the right course.

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope
Image credit: NASA

Electronic instrumentation and communication engineers and computer engineers develop the devices that serve as pilots’ eyes and ears during flight. These engineers develop the technology that tell the pilot information like the vehicle’s speed, fuel levels, location, temperature, and whether there are any problems. They also may develop systems that allow pilots to communicate with others. Pilots in flight also need to be able to communicate with other pilots, control towers, and people on the ground to ensure safe takeoffs and landings. In space, communication systems are even more critical because they are astronauts’ only lifeline to the world below. Instrumentation engineers may also develop telescopes, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has captured incredible space images for over 20 years.

Since air and space equipment and vehicles go through extreme environments, they require specialized materials that must be manufactured to precise specifications. Materials engineers develop the various materials used to build aerospace structures such as metals, polymers and ceramics. Manufacturing engineers are concerned with developing processes to fabricate aerospace materials, equipment and components.

Aerospace engineering is an exciting and evolving field that has enabled accomplishments that one time could not be imagined. The innovative technologies developed by aerospace engineers will continue to contribute to new discoveries about our world and unlock the many mysteries of the universe. 

2 Comments

  • I am the Immediate Past Chair of IEEE Nigeria.

    Can we freely use the above materials to demonstrate the diverse nature of Space Engineering to Secondary School children in Nigeria?

    I lead the team that used some materials recently from TRY ENGINEERING, to demonstrate basic skills Secondary schools Teachers can teach K12 pupils to help them understand and appreciate engineering.

    Thank you.

    • Dear Tunde,

      You can certainly use the materials freely with students.

      Kind regards,

      The IEEE Spark Team

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