Science and Technology

Space – a branch of aerospace engineering

Space, avionics and aircrafts are the three branches that make up the degree that currently demands the highest admission grade at Técnico

“There is no one way to write the path of an engineer working on space.” The words of professor Fernando Lau, one of the coordinators of the Master’s degree in aerospace engineering (MEAer), might give an idea of the implications of working in this area. “Someone working on space may build satellites, handle the electronics part, propulsion, structure… It can be a lot of things.”

In part, that’s what makes this branch of aerospace engineering so desirable, which professor Paulo Gil, in charge of the space dynamics, space mission planning and satellites subjects, considers a “true synthesis discipline”. “This area is younger than the others, and it was born through them [avionics and aircrafts]. The intention was to add some specific subjects, but simultaneously draw something from the structures and electronics part.” This way, a “space” engineer can move through several areas. “An engineer will eventually succeed if he can speak several languages and bridge the gap between them. This is especially true for space”, assures Fernando Lau.

In the past few years, interest in aerospace engineering – which in September was the degree with the third highest admission average (18.5 points) – has been increasing significantly. Portugal’s growing participation in the European Space Agency (ESA) has also contributed to this, according to professor Luís Braga Campos, also a MEAer coordinator. “There is significant progress in the space sector in Portugal. A few years ago the activity was very small, but that has changed. A few small companies have been created, and they have their own technology, export nearly 100% of what they produce, and have had very interesting developments”, he explains.

Nevertheless, most students in this area end up working abroad. “A lot of space students end up working abroad, but that’s because they have the ambition to work for the major production, development and design centres”, says Fernando Lau, adding that this determination “is stimulated by the degree’s management and by the School itself.” Paulo Gil is of the same opinion, revealing that for most students “the main target” is the ESA. “Unfortunately, NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] is a more difficult goal.”

And even if there is high demand for aerospace engineers – including space engineers – in many sectors, such as the automobile industry, “there are several alumni working in the space sector throughout Europe”, says Gil. “I think that their going abroad is a problem for the country, and an advantage for students. But of course there are many more opportunities outside Portugal – in this field, countries don’t work alone and people tend to come close to the centre. “And the centre, in this case, is Germany, Holland, France and Switzerland.”

Despite the bright prospects for engineers in this field – which offers full employment -the road isn’t necessarily easy. “This is a program with very good students, and there is high demand for such people almost regardless of the degree they take. But this is a serious program – you don’t have to be a genius, but you won’t make it without some serious work”, Luis Braga Campos warns. Nevertheless, to many students, it is precisely the “challenging” nature of the degree that makes it so attractive.
The aerospace engineering Master’s degree is an interdepartmental course comprising mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, making it one of Técnico’s most interdisciplinary courses. “The way we are organized uses Técnico’s teaching resources very efficiently. Students are exposed to all branches of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, and this too contributes to their education.”

Currently, according to the coordinators, some of Técnico’s aerospace engineering graduates are working with the most important aeronautical companies and national institutions (OGMA, TAP, Portuguese Air Force, NAV – Navegação Aérea de Portugal, INAC – Instituto Nacional de Avião Civil), as well as many other European organizations (Airbus, Aerospatiale, British Aerospace, DaimlerChrysler, Rolls-Royce, Snecma, Astrium, CERN, ESA, Eurocontrol). And although “there is this misconception in Portugal”, Luis Braga Campos recalls, “the space sector is not separated from aeronautics – most of the companies working on space also work with aeronautics”.

In such companies, many people work as design engineers. “Engineers coming out of Técnico are prepared to design new equipment, new products and new concepts. Many of our students go to project offices, and there they’re involved in some applied research. What an aerospace engineer really wants is to get things done”, Fernando Lau summarizes.