By Sharday Mosurinjohn | October 2014
If you’re an engineer working in either the private or public sector, there are pressures to anticipate every contingency of your design. But when what you’re designing has to be sent into space, the stakes skyrocket, so to speak. For Mechanical Engineering student Ryan Pitre, his MSc project is subject to this astonishing array of enabling constraints: contributing to original research, meeting real industry deadlines with a corporate partner, and engineering for an environment so extreme that your designs can’t count on a second chance.
Pitre is working with Dr. Il Yong Kim (Structural and Multidisciplinary Systems Design lab) and Neptec Design Group Ltd. on a preliminary study for the structural and thermal design of a next generation lunar rover chassis for a lunar excavation mission. At first, his expectation was that they would be working to “make it more robust, lighter” than it was, but since China landed a rover on the moon in December of last year, the failures in the rover’s thermal system during that first lunar night shifted the focus of Pitre’s team to include thermal design in the optimization process.
One of the first things Pitre and Dr. Kim did as a get-to-know-you with the lunar rover was to create a 3D-printed prototype of the old design. “It’s an 8-inch-high model we did for ourselves so we would have more or less a desk ornament that we could constantly be looking at and getting familiar with what we already had,” Pitre says of the playful mini-project.
Intimate familiarity with the existing rover design was crucial. “Space is very different from automotive and aircraft industries,” Pitre explains. And he isn’t exactly a stranger to this-wordly design processes, either. Pitre was a lead designer for the Queen’s Aero Design Team. He designed and optimized the fuselage and tail structures for the micro class plane, leading the team to place 5th out of 30 teams in an international competition. In the business domain, too, automotive and aircraft design is marked by intense competition. There, the aim is making something as perfect as possible. But with space, says Pitre, “you don’t innovate unless you have to; the more you add the more risk of failure you have.”
They may be conservative with changes, but at the Structural and Multidisciplinary Systems Design lab (SMSD), Pitre’s group has had to foray into every stage of the design procedure—that is, conceptual, preliminary design, and fine detail optimization. Moreover, these engineers have had to branch out into as many sub-fields as there are different design problems.
For Pitre, now going into the second year of his MSc, the first task he received was to look up “everything you can find” on the rover’s structural and thermal design. One hundred and fifty pages later, he had found “there wasn’t much to build off.”
Lately, Pitre has been working on a software that solves for temperature in any arbitrary configuration of components based on conductive and radiative heat transfer. This allows the design team to arrange components to optimize their cooling. This tool could be transferable to a number of other fields, emphasizes Pitre, including “the design of satellites, aircraft, and the automotive industry—space is a consistent environment, after all,” he quips.
For Pitre, future career goals are squarely located in this unique environment. He is interested, in particular, in spacecraft optimization. But it turns out imaginary terrestrial boundaries can pose about as much challenge in this industry as the real physical ones: “one of the social dimensions of building your career in spacecraft is communicating to non-engineers and to the public in general why your work is worthwhile” Pitre relates, adding, “In fact, I think for all grad students it’s important to develop the knowledge translation skills to share your work and advocate for it in a variety of different contexts, from funding agencies to the media.”
What Pitre likes most about his work is seeing the tangible results of something he has come up with in his head. “Whether it’s a part or a process, I’m often playing with software for months but then I get to apply it and actually see the kind of real-world use my own mind can yield.”
Pitre is similarly optimistic about the potential of advancements in space technology in general. Since the end of the Cold War and after the shuttle disasters of the 80s, Pitre remarks, “we’re remembering just how interesting these things are. There is so much potential to find exoplanets. We have telescope technology that may even be able to characterize atmospheres. As technology progresses we’ll become capable of more interesting things as well.” In an industry where private companies often have the resources to lead the cutting edge, university researchers have to be “ten years ahead in order to compete.” An enticement to interdisciplinarity, indeed, and not just blue skies, but starry skies thinking.