Space engineers test for good vibrations

Space engineering graduates from York University should have a leg up on other job candidates, given the practical experience they are getting in their Materials for Space Applications and Space Hardware courses.

Hugh Chesser

Lecturer Hugh Chesser and fellow members of the program’s curriculum committee have been able to “inject more experiential work into the curriculum, work that the students would experience during their careers,” thanks to testing equipment purchased with the help of an Academic Innovation Fund grant.

Their initial focus has been on the testing done to ensure a spacecraft is ready for its mission. The third-year materials students conduct a vibration test similar to those required in industry for a spacecraft or one of its components. The hardware students use the same equipment to explore sensor data acquisition.

The materials students first predict the vibration dynamics for a printed circuit board prior to running the actual test. They conduct the test in the Lassonde School of Engineering’s shaker facility and use industry standards to analyze the results and determine if the component will function properly after launch. See Chesser's blog for more information.

“The students appreciate it,” Chesser says. “It’s a realistic simulation of what they might be doing on the job, and in their portfolios, they can show pictures of the test and screen shots of the data analysis.

“The experience also shows them that all the equations we scrawl across the blackboards reflect reality and mean something. Initially, these formulas can seem abstract to them, but you see in their reports that the equations now make sense.”

The testing sequence is part of the students’ tutorial sessions, allowing them to discuss the activity in smaller groups. A week or two before the test is conducted the students are introduced to the problem and are able to work with the software they’ll be using for testing and analysis. Once the test is conducted, the students have a week or two for reflection and analysis.

The fourth-year hardware students use the same equipment to learn about typical sensor data acquisition.

“It’s a nice change of pace to teach them something concrete,” said Chesser, who recently incorporated the test into his course for the third time. “It’s also an experience that gives the students a leg up on some of the competition in the field.”

Keith Menezes, a fourth-year space engineering student who is president of York’s Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Team, took the space materials course the first time the testing component was included.

Having knowledge on how to operate and analyze the results of a test on space materials in crucial to obtaining a space-related job or career in the future. Pictured above is the International Space Station, a living laboratory of space engineering, hardware and materials. Photo: NASA

“Having the knowledge on how to operate and analyze the results is very crucial to obtaining a space-related job/career in the future,” Menezes says. “It is difficult to find such relevant classroom experience for other courses. I’m really grateful that [Mr.] Chesser incorporated this into the curriculum and I’m excited to see other Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science lab facilities being used in future courses.”

Tetiana Situigina, a fourth-year space engineering student who took the course this past semester, says, “Vibration testing is a big part of quality assurance and validation stage in every spacecraft design, and therefore, no matter what space mission we are working on in the future, the acquired skills would be applicable and very valuable.”

Chesser hopes that experiential opportunities of this nature will entice first-year engineering students to choose space engineering as their specialty.

“It shows that they won’t be limited to theoretical work,” he says. “I hope it catches their interest.”

Given the positive reception received for the experiential component to course, Chesser has applied for another AIF grant that will allow him to incorporate testing into his third-year Thermal Transfer course.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus

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