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So what exactly is aerospace engineering?

  1. Jun 17, 2011 #1

    Let me start with saying I am interested in physics/astrophysics but what fascinates me equally are the tools and machines used in fields I've listed. To clarify, I'm interested in space technology which led to the creation of instruments such as the James Webb Space Telescope (among many other telescopes and other such spacecrafts).

    My question to you guys is as follow: Is aerospace engineering the right field of study if one is interested in building OR researching space technologies (such telescopes, space probes etc).

    Is it possible to work with engineers while holding a degree (PhD) in physics/astrophyics? What are my options if I am EQUALLY fascinated by both fields: aero. engineering and astrophysics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 17, 2011 #2
    I'm only a Aerospace Engineering student, so I can't give you on-the-job experience, but (at least at my school), aerospace engineering is probably what you are looking for. There are several classes required for the major that are specific to space-related design and a few electives within the college that are also space-specific.

    However, I said probably because it really depends on what you want to do specifically in designing/researching space technology.

    Are you interested in the lenses for the telescopes or cameras the probes carry around? Physics would probably be good (although EE would also work if you take the right classes) as an undergraduate unless you can find an UG optical engineering program, and then do optical engineering in grad school.

    Are you interested in the control electronics or programming? EE or CE would be good.

    Are you interested in designing the structure? AE/ME/MAE would all be good.

    You get the idea. No one type of engineer does it all, and for many jobs the lines are blurred even as to exactly what type of engineering your doing.

    Again, I'm only a student so I'm sure somebody else will shed more light on it.
  4. Jun 17, 2011 #3
    What does one mean when referring "designing the structure"? Doesn't structure include an electrical component, an optical component, and various other elements?

    On a sidenote, can you go to grad school in physics/astronomy/astrophysics with an undergraduate education in aerospace engineering?
  5. Jun 18, 2011 #4
    Yes you can. I already answered this question for you in your other thread. Its not advisable to follow that path though because as I said, you will have to take "X" amount of classes before you can handle either program at the graduate level.

    Since its pretty clear you haven't even started college yet, I'll say this. Choose aerospace engineering as your major. The physics/math classes will probably be nearly identical to a physics major for the first 2-3 semesters. I think you will have changed your mind/found the path you want by this point. Reading about physics/engineering is different than actually doing them, and some people dislike the mathy/abstract/not always applicable side of physics, while some dislike trying to build something with financial and time constraints of engineering.

    They are actually very different fields. These wikipedia articles give you a very good idea of their differences.

  6. Jun 18, 2011 #5
    When you say "X" amount, into how many years/semesters does that translate to? Is one year sufficient to catch up?

    So does that mean that if I were to change my mind by the 2nd or 3rd semester, I can switch to physics without starting all over (as in not repeating my first/second year). I want to be able to finish my undergrad. education in 4 years if possible, and that includes transitioning from one major to another (if that's possible).
  7. Jun 18, 2011 #6
    I don't know. It may be enough time, it may not. Either way, I can bet you aren't going to want to do that, or else you would have changed majors during your undergraduate.

    If you change your mind in 2nd/3rd semester you could probably finish in 4 years, but there's no guarantee. Some courses are only offered certain semesters, so you may have to take some course sequences such as electromagnetism 1 and 2 at times that may not be the best(like with quantum 1 and 2). You shouldn't worry about finishing in 4 years. What you should worry about is your grades. If you are switching in between majors or doing a double major you "probably" won't be able to focus as much on your core major classes, so wont have as good of a gpa. If you want to build very high tech stuff for NASA, or be an astrophysicist anywhere, you better have good grades and stand out.
  8. Jun 18, 2011 #7
    Thank you nlsherrill for answering my questions. But I still have one question left out and I will repeat it here:

    What does one mean when referring "designing the structure"?

    I'm referring specifically to "structures" such as the James Webb Space Telescope, Mars Rovers, Cassini spacecraft, etc. What key role do AE engineers play in them?
  9. Jun 18, 2011 #8


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    Aerospace engineers would do things such as:

    - Design the structure itself. This doesn't mean the satellite, this means the physical structure that supports it, what material it is made of, what shape it is, etc
    - Determine the details of the orbit the spacecraft is in. How it gets to orbit, what kind of fuel it needs, what kind of rockets are needed, and how it will maneuver once it achieves its final orbit (for a spacecraft). This can include such things as how to get to a given orbit using a minimum of fuel, or how to get to a given orbit as fast as possible.
    - Determine the control system for the spacecraft. For something like James Webb, how it points at the objects it would like to observe, as well as what kind of accuracy and stability it can have while pointing.
    - Determine how to safely reenter the atmosphere (or enter the atmosphere of another planet). For the mars rovers, this means the trajectory required, the aerodynamic heating and forces involved, and the stability of the reentry vehicle.
  10. Jun 19, 2011 #9
    So suppose I am interested in rather researching the potential solutions to the problems laid by physicists or astrophysicists: ie the James Webb Space Telescope. Before designing, engineers had to research the requirements as to what the structure should be able to do. Who does that researching?

    Can someone with a physics/astrophyiscs degree (let us suppose it's a PhD) take part in any of what I've mentioned above?
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