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Introducing the Space Systems Engineering Research Group

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Published on Thursday, 16 September 2021

Andreas Hein loves space and complex systems. He joined SnT on 1 September 2021 as Head of the new Space Systems Engineering (SpaSys) research group, where he plans to research disruptive future space systems. He also recently held a session at ICT Spring 2021, a two-day global tech conference hosting international professionals in FinTech, Cybersecurity and Space Technologies, which took place on the 14 and 15 September in Luxembourg. We spoke to Prof. Hein to discover more about his research interests and his life so far as an engineer. 

SnT: Welcome to SnT! Could you tell us about your background and how you came to research space systems? 

Hein: From my very early childhood, I was mesmerised by visions of what our future world might look like. I was always drawing planes, trains and spacecraft – and if I wasn’t drawing them, you can bet I was reading books or watching TV shows that might provide a glimpse into the future of technology, for example, Kenneth Gatland’s “The World of the Future” books and the Czech series “The Visitors”. With that being my interest, I knew I wanted to take it as far as I could. I went on to study space systems at the Technical University of Munich. While I was there, I got interested in the field of systems engineering, which focuses on methods and approaches of designing complex systems – such as cars, airplanes and spacecraft. The notion that one method of thinking could actually build all of these different systems was fascinating, and so, in my Ph.D., I combined these two fields. Once I finished, I wanted to explore domains outside of space, which led me into developing sustainable industrial systems – including how we can reduce resource and energy consumption in industrial parks and factories. It was quite a transition from designing satellites to visiting waste incineration plants. From there, I went on to work with autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles, and have come full circle back to space systems engineering. 

What is your favourite career highlight so far? 

My favourite highlight is related to the 2017 appearance of the interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua. This cigar-shaped object entered our solar system from another, and was the first time such a phenomenon took place in our solar system (that we know of). Its name means a messenger reaching out from the distant past in Hawaiian, as it’s hypothesised that this object has been floating through interstellar space for millennia. The very nature of the object, whether it is an asteroid, comet, or something else is still unknown – but it presented a unique opportunity to study something from another star system without actually needing to travel to one. All we needed was to get to this object. The general consensus at the time was that the object was travelling far too fast to be observed from anywhere but afar, but I put together a team of volunteers and we managed to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to travel to ‘Oumuamua. It helped to change the perception of field missions to interstellar objects by proving it was possible with our existing, or near-future, technology.  

What are you looking to achieve through your work? 

Sustainability is the key to our work as engineers when thinking about the possibility of expanding into space. I worked with French entrepreneur Jean-Baptiste Rudelle on this question, and we came to the conclusion that we cannot consider the idea of living in space on a large scale without creating a sustainable Earth. The reason behind this is simple. Living in space will always be much more expensive than living on Earth, as it provides us with many things we need to create artificially in space. Think of air, food, water, and things we take for granted such as gravity and atmospheric pressure. For economic reasons alone, we are bound to Earth and our space activities need the umbilical cord to the Earth economy. But space and Earth can certainly work hand in hand. For example, fighting climate change is impossible to imagine without data we get from Earth observation satellites. My long-term goal is to contribute towards sustainable development on Earth via space – and hopefully vice versa in the future, develop space from a sustainable Earth. 

What is the most rewarding thing about being an engineer? 

Engineering is such a rewarding career path in general. In natural sciences, the focus is all about understanding and uncovering the workings of Nature. But as engineers, although we do have to understand nature to work with it, we’re also creating things that can be helpful to life on our planet. Researching, developing and creating things brings with it a very deep satisfaction, as is seeing your creation help to improve lives.  

For anyone looking to start their career in engineering, getting involved within a team of people and creating something together provides a great boost in morale – and it’s essentially what all engineers do later on. Today, there are numerous student design competitions you can join and make this uniquely motivating experience, and it can help you figure out if this is the right career path for you! 

Your research group has just begun working at SnT, what kind of projects will you be setting your sights on? 

SpaSys is exploring three interrelated topic areas. The first area is miniaturised space systems. We will be working on extremely small space systems – ones that are the size of a credit card – called ChipSats. We’ll also be working on CubeSats, as well as exploring how these two can function in swarms or formations. The second area will be on space-based services, or collaborative space systems. The internet exploded in popularity because we have so many services that we can rely on – and so we’d like to explore the possibility of having similar, collaborative infrastructures that can prepare new services in space. Possible examples include data centres, as well as communications or resource infrastructure in space. The third area is space manufacturing and in-situ resource utilisation, to drastically expand what we can do in space. 

 

 

 

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