Careers in Satellite Technology
Government agencies and private institutions of all kinds have many uses for satellites. Satellites are used for communications, earth observations, and space exploration just to name a few of their many applications. Such technology, however, is restricted to those institutions that can afford the expensive costs of building, launching, and maintaining satellites. For instance, it reportedly costs $20 million just to launch a microsatellite like the Australian FedSat-1. Therefore, people who work in satellite technology will most likely work for large corporations or for government-funded institutions.
Work in satellite technology involves precision and accuracy; this is not a job for people who like to fudge numbers and estimate. Placing satellites in orbits as well as using them to obtain data is as essential as building them. For example, extreme precision is required to form a theoretical orbit for the satellite so that it does not crash with other satellites or debris already present in earth’s orbits. Guiding satellites to continue on designated orbits also requires great precision.
Perhaps surprisingly then, there are opportunities even for undergraduate and graduate students in the world of satellite technology. For example, students can work as junior technicians at research institutions such as the Asher Space Research Institute (ASRI) in Israel.
“There are no students in permanent ASRI personal; students participate in research in a temporary team during its study,” explains Dr. Fred Ortenberg of ASRI. “A good deal of work in the ASRI was carried out with the participation of Technion students from Aerospace Engineering Faculty”.
ASRI, part of a university called Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, is considered to be Israel’s leading research facility center for the development of space system.
“As a student it can be hard to keep up, but it’s really more [an advantage] to be challenged than a [disadvantage]. It’s great fun to be in the field of space research and technology.” Says Martin Enghoff, a Ph.D. student researching with the DNSC.
Dr. Carol Oxborrow, Astrophysics research assistant of Danish National Space Center (DNSC) explains that there are many positions also available for post-doctoral students in the industry and academic environment. Most positions require a background in astronomy, physics, engineering, computer engineering, or materials science.
“We also screen applicants for the Danish contribution to the ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut corp. for which there is no shortage of willing candidates,” explains Oxborrow.
Opportunities for students at institutions like SRI and DNSC are important because experience is key in landing a job in satellite technology. People designing and researching satellites need in-depth knowledge regarding the physics and aerodynamics behind the structure and shape of the satellite. Similarly, materials science knowledge is essential for jobs involving the production and assembly of satellites and rockets.
In addition to experience, it is necessary to earn a higher degree in physics, astrophysics or engineering to make a career in satellite technology. A higher degree in computer engineering is also necessary for people who want to coordinate, monitor, and collect satellite data. In fact, all of Israel’s ASRI members are professors in physics, aerospace, mechanical and electrical engineering, or computer science. For information on what it takes to become a professor, check out the Academia career path.
Since the field of satellite technology is similar to other engineering fields, the workload is similar as well. Typical satellite engineers, like Ortenberg, spend 4-6 hours everyday researching on some advanced and innovative space technologies. The payscale for people varies depending upon their particular areas of concentration.
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, “the average annual salary for physicists employed by the Federal Government was $95,685 in 2003; for astronomy and space scientists, it was $100,591".
As with most science jobs, work environments differ between the industrial and academic sectors. Ortenberg says that “educational organizations have [the] advantage of academic freedom and have [the] disadvantage of poor experimental basis”. Industrial firms, on the other hand, concentrate more on applied research and the results of their research. In both sectors, employees may be required to travel.
“I get to work on cutting-edge science and meet the leading experts in a range of very exciting scientific fields as well as being part of the larger project of space exploration in general. This means that our work is quite widely distributed geographically and requires a fair amount of travel in Europe and the US,” says Oxborrow.
Overall, satellite technology is a field dominated by engineers, physicists, and computer scientists who not only participate in the development and maintenance of the satellite, but also perform experiments and gather data. While the intense degrees required for these jobs may be daunting, the job satisfaction can also be high, as Enghoff explains:
“To investigate the frontiers of our understanding of the universe is an exciting task. One of the perks is that other people (family, friends, people you meet) actually find it interesting when you tell them of your work. That is usually not the case with science.”
For more information:
Asher Space Research Institute (ASRI)
FedSat Satellite Launch, Peter McGauran MP, Commonwealth Minister of Science
Satellite Industry Association, State of the Satellite Industry Report
Satellite Situation Report, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Operational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics
What is a Satellite, Boeing Satellite Systems