This is a continuation of the roles and responsibilities discussion – in the first post we talked about what kind of responsibilities the leadership positions have.  This post is going to consider engineering roles that are closest to the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering disciplines.  These aren’t the only things that MAE students can do,but they are the ones MAE students will probably be most familiar with.

Propulsion Engineering

Propulsion Engineer

The propulsion engineer is responsible for the design of the main propulsion system – this is the closest thing we have to a real-life rocket engineer. You’ll be using equations and models to figure out what kind of propulsion to use, what kind of propellant to load it with, and what kind of tanks you’ll need to hold everything.  On top of that, you’re going to be responsible for keeping a list of what happens when; every time the main engines light off during the mission, you need to know about it.  It would be a good thing (although it’s not required) for a propulsion engineer to have MAE 440 (Rocket Propulsion) and/or MAE 468 (Spacecraft Design).

  • Responsible for design of main propulsion system.
  • Responsible for propellant calculation, engine selection and sizing, tank sizing.
  • Responsible for maintaining primary maneuver schedule throughout mission.

Guidance, Navigation, and Control Engineer

The propulsion engineer deals with the big engine at the back, but the GN&C engineer is responsible for all the little thrusters around the edge.  As the spacecraft travels through space, you’ll need to turn around to look at something or to re-orient the main engines for a breaking burn.  As the design progresses, it’ll be your job to figure out how to get all the science instruments the longest possible view time on whatever it is they want to see; you’ll also have to work with the communications engineers to maximize the amount of time you can talk to Earth.  Like the propulsion engineer, it’ll also be up to you to keep a list of every time the GN&C system changes the orientation of the spacecraft.

  • Responsible for calculation of pointing accuracy, knowledge, and control technical requirements.
  • Responsible for selection and sizing of location sensors, stabilization mechanisms, and attitude thrusters.
  • Responsible for maintaining attitude control maneuver schedule throughout mission.

Structural Engineering

Structural Engineer

The structural engineer is responsible for making sure all the various parts of your spacecraft survive the launch and successfully make it to your destination.  You’ll be working closely with the CAD technician (you might even be the same person) to build and test a structural model of the spacecraft.  If the mission has a lander, you’ll be the person responsible for designing the support system (i.e. the legs).  This job is a lot harder than it sounds; the structure changes more than any other system as the design progresses.  We really recommend that the structures engineer have MAE 489 (Computer-Aided Engineering) in their resume, since finite element structural analyses will be required.

  • Responsible for design of structural spacecraft components.
  • Responsible for calculation of structural requirements during mission and verification of structural integrity during launch and propulsion maneuvers.
  • Responsible for selection of structural materials and physical design of spacecraft bus.

Thermal Engineering

Thermal Engineer

The thermal engineer is responsible for keeping everything on the spacecraft either warm or cool, depending on the environment.  You’ll be pulling out your thermodynamics and heat transfer textbooks; as the design progresses you’ll move from simple 1-D heat flow to complex multi-transfer compartmented models.  You’ll work with the propulsion engineer to keep the propellant at the right temperature and the power engineer to minimize the number of active heating elements you need.  This can be one of the most technically challenging tasks on the team, especially in extreme environments (like Mercury).

  • Responsible for design of thermal systems on spacecraft.
  • Responsible for calculations of heat transfer, insulation, solar thermal effects, albedo calculations during entire mission.
  • Responsible for maintaining thermal radiation profiles throughout mission.