To the stars: Aerospace engineering students find a home in an astrophysics lab

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa .– Aerospace engineering students Logan Baker and Gooderham McCormick end their education in an unconventional way: by designing and building a spacecraft. They are members of a NASA-funded Penn State research team that is building a satellite to capture x-ray images of supermassive black holes and distant galaxies in the early universe.

Students contribute to work funded by a grant of $ 5.8 million over five years NASA’s astrophysics research and analysis program, whose mission is to build a black hole coded aperture telescope, or BlackCAT, to identify and observe black hole phenomena. Its launch is scheduled for 2024. Abe Falcone, professor and researcher in astronomy and astrophysics and director of the High Energy Astrophysical Detector and Instrument Lab at Penn State, is the project’s principal investigator.

“Students of aerospace engineering and astrophysics have different skills and training, but often have the same research interests and common ground on skills,” Falcone said. “BlackCAT and other future missions that we are developing all benefit students with both engineering and astrophysical knowledge and skills. It’s definitely a win-win situation for the students and for the research program. “

Baker, who received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and his minor in astrophysics at Penn State in May, said it was luck, or perhaps luck, that he met some friends in his freshman year. from college who were majors in astrophysics, a program that piqued his interest from the start.

“For me, doing a minor in astrophysics was the perfect combination of physics and engineering,” Baker said. “It’s a good choice for me to do research in astrophysics, but from an engineering perspective. It gave me the opportunity to develop truly original thinking when it comes to solving engineering problems.

Baker is currently completing a Masters in Aerospace Engineering at Penn State, with thesis work focusing on BlackCAT. His research focuses on thermal modeling of the satellite, including how heat circulates through the payload and spacecraft, to ensure it meets thermal requirements during its year or more of orbiting mission.

Baker plans to enter the aerospace engineering industry after graduation, with the goal of continuing to design satellites or interplanetary spacecraft.

“I find the job in the astrophysics lab extremely valuable because I have the ability to tell scientists what they want, what they need and why something is going on,” Baker said. “I can then translate that into an engineering plan. When building a satellite payload, astrophysical and engineering perspectives are needed. ”

McCormick, a fourth-year student with a dual major in aerospace engineering and astrophysics, is developing software simulations to model and test BlackCAT to determine how different orbit paths and other parameters may impact the satellite and its ability to drive a payload during its operational life.

McCormick worked full time in Falcone’s lab during the summer and completed his semesters of credits to earn both undergraduate degrees in four years. He is currently applying to doctoral programs in physics for admission in the fall of 2022.

“Aerospace engineering and physics go well together, and I think it’s great to learn both the schools of thought and the different problem-solving approaches you get from each,” McCormick said. “The experience I gained in my astrophysics and research courses helped me do well in my aerospace engineering courses, as well as in astrophysics engineering. There are practical skills to be learned from each discipline.

Amy Pritchett, head of aerospace engineering, commented on the value of an aerospace engineer with a background in astrophysics.

“These students are a shining example of the hard work, creativity and collaborative thinking that is a hallmark of aerospace engineering at Penn State,” said Pritchett. “I know their ingenuity will lead them to great opportunities in industry and academia. I hope that our collaboration with the Department of Astrophysics will continue to develop in the years to come.


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