All Systems Go: Space Technology Course Launches UCLA Engineering Students into Space Careers

Apr 21, 2011

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

By Matthew Chin

With leading aerospace companies, research labs and testing grounds run by NASA and the Air Force, a workhorse space launch facility, and much more, Southern California’s aerospace community is unmatched in its breadth, depth and history.

Alumni of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have been leaders and contributors to this industry for many years, and part of the reason for this success are classes that challenge students to apply their knowledge and imagination in comprehensive projects.

One example is Introduction to Space Technology, a course students know as MAE (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) 161B. The course offers undergraduates an introduction of the key elements of successful space missions, covering space systems and space system technology.  By the end of the class, students are familiar with the design and operation of space vehicles; technologies for space mission; as well as aspects of the space environment that impact space missions and spacecraft designs.

“I always thought space travel was cool, and it was fun to learn how to plan trajectories to other planets,” said Anisha Keshavan, a graduating senior majoring in aerospace engineering and applied mathematics who took the class in winter quarter. “I mean, who doesn’t wish we could travel to the Mars one day?”

The Winter Quarter 2011 class was taught by assistant professor Richard Wirz whose research includes advanced space propulsion systems. The course covered seven systems that just about every spacecraft requires: power; thermal; propulsion; spacecraft structure; attitude control; communications; and command and data handling.

The final exam required students to design a spacecraft for a mission of their own choosing. This included providing details for the necessary technologies for each of the seven systems. Also, they needed to select the appropriate rocket to launch their spacecraft, calculate the time to the target and the duration of the mission, supply potential supplementary objectives, take into account the specific atmospheres and gravitational effects of different planets and moons, as well as a whole host of variables specific to the mission they chose. Essentially, they had to incorporate all the knowledge they learned in the previous 10 weeks into their final.

“I was impressed with their curiosity and ability to assimilate several seemingly unrelated topics and make sense of how they are related and work together to make the mission a success,” Wirz said.

Mission ideas for the students’ final projects included planet and moon landing vehicles; intra-solar system communication satellites; earth-orbiting satellites that would clean up space junk; and spacecraft targeted for the outermost reaches of the Solar System, just to name a few.

Keshavan designed a spacecraft to observe the sun directly opposite the Earth at what’s known as Lagrange point L3. Her design, similar to the European Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, included a Doppler-sensitive photometer, a photometric imager, and an ultraviolet spectrograph.

Alex Babb, who just graduated after winter quarter and is now taking classes toward a master’s degree, designed a lander to the Jovian moon, Europa. His proposed lander carries a submarine probe armed with cameras, spectrometers, and sonar imaging equipment to search for life after melting through miles of ice to a possible ocean below the moon’s surface.

“Should I end up working in the space industry one day, I will have ample opportunity to design communications satellites,” Babb said. “I wanted my mission to be exciting and unusual, the kind of thing that engineers like myself would love to be a part of in real life. I’d seen a few different hypothetical missions to Europa before, and it seemed like a nice compromise between ‘unlikely’ and ‘downright impossible.’”

Impossibilities aside, Wirz stressed to the class that with essentially one chance on missions that could cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, “failure is not an option.”

“Unless you are lucky like Hubble or the Space Station, once you are launched you are on your own and pretty much any failure will destroy the mission,” he said.

For Babb, he found the class invaluable. He’s leaning toward aviation, but is keeping his mind open.

“I learned as much about systems engineering as I did about space technology,” Babb said. “To students who think they might ever want to go into the space industry, I highly recommend this class – you will get a very practical sense of almost every aspect of spacecraft design.”

Main Image: Keshavan’s Solar orbiter design

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