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Working with space probes?

  1. Oct 26, 2012 #1
    How do people get into jobs working with developing and constructing things of the likes of Curiosity and New Horizons? I know they have different functions but I'm really interested in being involved in working with space probes. I want to do Physics at university, but would mechanical Engineering be more suitable, or would it be possible to do a BSc in Physics then a masters in Engineering, as I don't want to miss out on all I could learn with a Physics degree that I wouldn't get with Engineering. I know these sorts of jobs are few and far apart, but I see small start ups as a way into investigating space without having to work with NASA in the US (I'm in the UK and, no offense, I don't want to have kids raised in the US for a number of reasons).

    I've seen students sending objects merely with weather balloons with electronics in a foam box, I want to try things like that but I want to go further. Space travel and exploration is appearing to become a major frontier for entrepreneurs, what with Virgin Galactic and the increasing presence of SpaceX and I think it could be something I could get into on a part time basis at least. So if I wanted to have the skill set to make a major contribution towards developing space probes, would a Physics degree be enough or would it be better to top this up with an Engineering masters? For that matter, is there any point topping it up with an Engineering masters, would I have to have done an Engineering bachelors? I just don't want to give up the opportunity to learn all that's available in a Physics bachelors.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 26, 2012 #2
    You would not miss any physics pertinent to engineering by doing an engineering degree, but if you did a degree in physics, you would miss physics that is pertinent to engineering. As an example, engineering typically explores material science to a greater degree than physics, at least insofar as the practical nature of bending, yielding, strain, stress, and etc are concerned, whereas a physics degree might explore the "physical chemistry" of material, which, while useful, is less useful than the engineering topics for purposes of design. Your space probes aren't going to worry about quantum effects too much (perhaps in the electronics, but I honestly don't know), yet you will be spending quite a bit of time learning quantum physics. If you explore aerospace engineering instead, you'll likely gain a better treatment of orbital mechanics than a physicist might.

    There's no excuse for doing a degree in physics if engineering is what you want to do.
  4. Oct 26, 2012 #3
    Ok thanks that's great. Well the thing is, I don't know which it is that I really want to do I can't decide between the two. I mean, I want to learn everything I can from a Physics degree, but more importantly I want to be involved in working with space exploration as directly as possible, you know so I can say about any successfully launched/landed/working probe "That wouldn't be doing what it does without my contribution." - I know that sounds a little narcissistic but I would like to be able to see physical fruition of my work and if that is more likely to involve engineering then that's fine, I'll abandon physics as a degree. If I was to go into engineering with the opportunity to work with probes, which kind of engineering do you think would be best?

    Lastly (and I promise, lastly!) I'm a bit cautious about design. I did a design based course for two years that I left, it was architectural in nature. There was a constant need to justify every design element I chose which I loathed, but because there was no yes/no right/wrong answer, unlike in science where if the hypothesis doesn't work, it doesn't work... everything was about the whim of the lecturer if they "liked" the design, you could do well, if they didn't, you were screwed. I don't want to end up in that sort of environment again and if engineering, which would involve design, would get me just doing what it takes to please the tastes of a lecturer I'll forget it and just do physics.
  5. Oct 27, 2012 #4
    Depends on what interests you, but if I were you, I'd do a degree in aerospace or mechanical engineering.

    Welcome to the working world. If your client hates your design, they don't need a reason. Dealing with that level of unreasonableness is necessary in any field. No matter where you go in the spacecraft industry, you will have to satisfy the demands of clients, and you will have to justify everything you do - even if you do a degree in physics. If this is what scares you about design, then I don't hold much hope for you in any scientific field, even fields outside of design. Even working as a physicist, you have to write proposals that justify every step of your research for the sole reason that you need money, you don't have money, and they do have money. Your proposals can be rejected just because someone who has never had an ounce of training in physics thinks your proposal is unworkable. When you're running experiments of your own design, the lecturer can and will knock you if they feel you weren't exploring the issue satisfactorily, or were taking the wrong approach in doing so. That too is a matter of taste.

    If I were you, I'd drop this notion that you can get anywhere in life without whimsical - and often nonsensical - decisions by other people.
  6. Oct 27, 2012 #5
    Fair enough, if that is something I have to live with then I can do that. I know proposals for requests for grants are the norm, but I could at least say to myself, upon rejection, that I did the best I could based on reason rather than "please accept my building because it looks nicer than theirs and functions the same but in a different way". I guess what I mean is, the reason for rejection may be less ambiguous. however, if it's likely i'm going to face the level of whimsy but just in a different field, one that I actually enjoy, then i'm happy to just bite the bit and get on with it. thanks for clarifying.

    also, i've been working for a while now, QAing packaging for a supermarket, I've actually become pretty used to the fickle, indecisive nature of clientelle so it may not be as confusing a frustration as it was the first time round at uni!
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