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Luck and Rockets: A Space Engineer in Training


I'm a very lucky person in that I've always known what I wanted to do with my life: design a magical antigravity device that could take us all to the stars without polluting the environment! Then I grew up, went to school, college, and the University of Birmingham, where I graduated in Physics with Astrophysics in July 2000. So how has my dream developed? Well, I've started a career in space instrumentation.

During my undergraduate course I studied many interesting and relevant subjects: relativity, cosmology, compact objects, and (of course) instrumentation. But the defining moment for my future career was completing a third-year group study. Seventeen of us had to design a satellite, which would realistically fulfil the mission objectives to observe gamma ray bursts. I enjoyed the research, design, trade-off (debating), and managerial aspects of the project--everything! I also successfully completed a space-instrumentation-related final-year project: the design of the readout electronics for a very large array of detectors.

The next logical step was a Ph.D. I applied to the appropriate institutions and was accepted, but then Birmingham offered me a chance to do something quite different and completely new. They wanted to employ me! I accepted and have now been a "Graduate Technologist" for nearly 9 months.

Birmingham now has two Graduate Technologists, and the university hopes to continue and expand the scheme. The programme is designed both to suit my needs (as an enthusiastic graduate), and those of the Astrophysics and Space Research Group ( ASRG). I am a fulltime member of staff with a minimum 4-year contract. As well as this, I am enrolled for both an Institute of Physics Professional Development and Formation Scheme to become a Chartered Physicist and Engineer (CPhys and CEng), and a part-time Ph.D. Space instrumentation often crosses the hazy line between physics and engineering. CEng status is important for an engineer, while a Ph.D. is especially important for a career as a scientist. I see myself primarily as a scientist involved in engineering, so a Ph.D. was an essential bargain in my contract. My thesis, CPhys, and CEng will be based on projects I complete during my work.

Essentially, I am an apprentice of space instrumentation. During the period of my contract I have to achieve a number of objectives. These are to conduct projects in thermal and structural design and analysis, to plan and monitor an instrument development schedule, and to develop a sensor for a space instrument, including its detailed design. These objectives are to be carried out by working on real projects, to real deadlines, under the supervision of experienced staff.

Being a Graduate Technologist has, so far, been a fascinating experience. For many aspects of my work I have actually become an engineer, designing to specific objectives. Yet I do still use the physics knowledge I gained as an undergraduate, such as solid state physics for the sensor development project. It has also helped me understand the reasons behind the consequences of design decisions. This has been especially useful in explaining to colleagues why a design is successful, as well as developing confidence in the performance of software previously unknown to me. A typical episode was the decision to place heaters on the outside of an instrument box structure, instead of inside with the components which had to be kept warm. This greatly simplified wiring the heaters, but it was thought they would not be effective due to the poor conductivity of the structure. By applying the analogy of an electronic potential divider, I showed that the heaters were just as effective on the outside as on the inside, hence no extra power was required for heaters (luckily, as power is a very finite resource on a satellite).

In the space industry, there is always a deadline or unforeseen problem around the corner. You have to be ready for colleagues to challenge every decision and calculation. They want to be sure you are correct, as any mistake could prove fatal to the mission. These were lessons that I learned very early on when working on the thermal design for an instrument going on the Japanese solar observation satellite, Solar-B. There have been many challenging design issues on Solar-B, as well as the usual problems involved in designing for the hostile space environment, not to mention communication difficulties! An instrument in space will experience large temperature gradients because one side will face the hot sun, while the others face cold space. Thermal engineering ensures that these gradients are reduced and components are kept at operating temperatures. I also had to learn the use of a professional, dedicated software package for thermal engineering, all in time for a December delivery in Japan. And yes, I went to Tokyo, and it was wonderful!

I have also helped, in numerous ways, with the Solar Mass Ejection Imager ( SMEI) test programme. SMEI is another solar observation instrument that the university is responsible for. I helped with the vibration tests at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory ( RAL), the thermal vacuum tests at Birmingham, and performed some thermal modelling to predict worst-case temperature conditions. I also helped with calibrations of the SMEI optics, which was fascinating. Most of these activities meant real hands-on experience, utilising the instruments in high-grade clean rooms, and wearing the full stylish attire of hat and boots!

Next on the agenda is structural design. By teaming up with a mechanical engineer, I shall help test and develop designs until a final iteration is decided upon. The "tests" are performed via Finite Element Analysis using professional software that simulates the reaction of objects to loads and vibrations, thus predicting limiting loads and frequencies. This is being done for part of the UK-built section of the Satellite Test of the Equivalence Principle ( STEP).

Throughout my work, I have also undertaken the general responsibilities of being a member of university staff. I have supervised the third-year group project I was once part of, given tours of the ASRG facilities to A-level students, and made presentations at schools on my work and being a physics graduate. There are meetings, conferences ... not to mention the social life!

How do I envisage my career developing after I have completed my contract? I'm not sure what I specifically want to do next. That depends on how much I enjoy each particular Graduate Technologist objective. There is a high international demand for skilled physicists with instrumentation experience. The nature of a Graduate Technologist position means forming close ties with international space agencies, such as NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (the Japanese nonmilitary space agency); other universities (such as Stanford and Mullard Space Science Laboratory); and industry (such as RAL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, McLaren Composites, and Redcliffe Magtronics, for example). Good contacts mean good job prospects, so I have no worries about being short of opportunities when the time comes to move on. There are also numerous job opportunities in the military and communications industries. I personally would not accept the former on moral grounds, while scientific space instruments tend to be more varied and challenging than the latter. I find the objectives of scientific space instruments inspiring and the mission of designing them fascinating. I can tell you for sure that I will be pursuing my career and ambitions in the field of scientific space instrumentation.

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