To the stars: Aerospace engineering students find a home in astrophysics lab


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Aerospace engineering students Logan Baker and Gooderham McCormick are finishing out their degrees in an unconventional way: By designing and building a spacecraft. They are members of a NASA-funded Penn State research team building a satellite to capture X-ray images of supermassive black holes and far-off galaxies from the early universe.

The students are contributing to work funded by a five-year, $5.8 million grant from NASA’s Astrophysics Research and Analysis program, whose mission is to construct a Black Hole Coded Aperture Telescope, or BlackCAT, to identify and observe black hole-related phenomena. It is planned to launch in 2024. Abe Falcone, research professor of astronomy and astrophysics and director of the High Energy Astrophysical Detector and Instrument Lab at Penn State, is the project’s principal investigator.

“Aerospace engineering and astrophysics students have different skill sets and training, but they frequently have many of the same research interests along with some common ground on skills,” Falcone said. “BlackCAT, and other future missions that we’re developing, all benefit from having students with both engineering and astrophysics knowledge and abilities. It’s a definite win-win situation for the students and for the research program.”

Baker, who received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and minor in astrophysics from Penn State in May, said it was luck, or maybe fate, that he met friends during his first year of college who happened to be astrophysics majors, a program that piqued his interest early on.

“For me, doing the astrophysics minor was the perfect combination of physics and engineering,” Baker said. “It is a good fit for me to do astrophysics research, but from an engineering standpoint. It gave me the opportunity to develop some really out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to solving engineering problems.”

Baker is currently completing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Penn State, with thesis work focused on the BlackCAT. His research focuses on thermal modeling of the satellite, including how heat cycles through the payload and spacecraft, to make sure it meets thermal requirements during its year or more of mission in orbit.

Baker plans to enter the aerospace engineering industry after he graduates, with the goal of continuing to design satellites or interplanetary spacecraft.

“I find working in the astrophysics lab extremely valuable because I have the ability to talk to the scientists about what they want, what they need and why something’s happening,” Baker said. “I can then translate that into an engineering plan. When building a satellite payload, both the astrophysics and engineering perspectives are necessary.”

McCormick, a fourth-year undergraduate student double majoring in aerospace engineering and astrophysics, develops software simulations to model and test BlackCAT to determine how different orbit paths and other parameters may impact the satellite and its ability to conduct a payload over its operational lifetime.

McCormick worked full time in Falcone’s lab during the summer and packed his semesters with credits to achieve both undergraduate degrees in four years. He is currently applying to doctoral programs in physics for fall 2022 admission.

“Aerospace engineering and physics go well together, and I think it’s great to learn both schools of thought and the various approaches to problem solving that you gain from each,” McCormick said. “The experience I gained in my astrophysics classes and research have helped me do well in my aerospace engineering classes, and likewise for engineering in astrophysics. There are practical skills to be learned from each discipline.”

Amy Pritchett, head of aerospace engineering, commented on the value of an aerospace engineer with a background in astrophysics.

“These students are a shining example of hard work, creativity and collaborative thinking that is a hallmark of aerospace engineering at Penn State,” Pritchett said. “I know their ingenuity will carry them through to excellent opportunities in industry and academia. I hope our collaboration with the astrophysics department continues to grow in the years to come.”


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