An Interview with Warwick Holmes Aero-space Engineer, Rosetta Project, ESA!November 28, 2014
What is an aero-space engineer?
An Aero-Space engineer is responsible for turning an “idea” or a “need” into physical reality by creating an “hardware” or “Software” Engineering solution. In the case of the ESA Rosetta and Philae mission, the “idea” was to make a spacecraft to orbit and land on a comet outside the Asteroid belt. Aero-space engineers turned that idea into the physical reality of the Rosetta and Philae spacecraft by applying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to create the spacecraft. Rosetta then flew for more than 10 years through the solar-system on an interplanetary trajectory, four times around the Sun, a total distance of 6.5 billion km to successfully orbit and land on Comet-67P.
I saw Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon when I was only 8 years old on a flickering black & white television set from my Grade-2 class in Adelaide. From that moment, I was determined to work in space engineering to build spacecraft and experience the excitement of space exploration and science.
Where did you go to school?
(1) St. Peters college (Adelaide)
(2) Red-Hill Primary and Telopea Park High school (Canberra)
(3) The Kings school Parramatta (Sydney)
What maths did you like?
Were you a nerd or simply a student with a passion?
Definitely not a nerd, definitely a student with a passion with a really well defined objective, to become an engineer and become involved in building and launching a spacecraft (that actually ended up becoming 10 spacecraft!)
How do you become an aero-space engineer? What maths do you need?
I completed three degrees, two at Sydney University and one at UNSW
(1) Science (majoring in Physics and Pure Mathematics)
(2) Electrical Engineering.
(3) Masters of Technology Management
It depends what stream of engineering you choose, but the most common mathematics involved in Space Engineering includes: Matrix algebra, statistics, conformal mappings and complex transformations, differential calculus, Fourier analysis, Laplace transforms and series expansions.
What was your job on the Rosetta project?
I had two roles:
(1) Assembly Integration and Test Engineer – working directly with the companies that built the Rosetta spacecraft
(2) Avionics Systems Engineer with the European Space Agency – performing complete integrated system tests of the spacecraft mission operations.
I performed the initial electrical integration of several electronic units on the Rosetta spacecraft (NAVCAM, gryoscopes, reaction wheels, Antenna pointing mechanism, etc). Then followed complex system testing where as many of the spacecraft modes and functions were tested as possible. After several years of testing , the engineers follow the spacecraft to the launch site to launch the spaceraft for the start of its long mission.
What was the biggest challenge in the entire project?
The spacecraft has a lot of built-in software “intelligence” so the it can look after itself when very far from Earth. This software was very complex and difficult to understand the decisions and actions it was making sometimes. Getting all the systems working together in one spacecraft was difficult.
Rosetta Spacecraft with Thermal Blankets from the ESA webpage
Did anything go wrong?
During the testing 100’s of things were wrong, and that was our job as test engineers to find (hopefully) all the errors before launch. The design of the spacecraft has a lot of flexibility in the software ad hardware which means even after launch many problems can still be solved.
What can we learn from this project?
This project will potentially prove two very important and currently unknown questions here on Earth.
(1) Possibly prove that the Earth’s sea water comes from Comets and
(2) The reason life started so quickly after the oceans formed was because the comets also seeded the water with exotic carbon compounds (specifically amino acids) that gave the formation of life a big kick-start.
What advice would you give to any student who wants to be an aero-space engineer?
There is only one secret, work hard and do as well as you can because there are many others people who want to do the same work. The only thing managers want to see and that is you are doing good work and working well in the team with other engineers (scientists, mathematicians, etc).