Missions like NASA’s Europa Clipper are a complex balancing act between meeting scientific and engineering requirements and managing schedules, costs, risks, and more.
To achieve this balance, Europa Clipper leverages the skills of a diverse team of systems engineers who look at the big picture, collaborating with subject engineers, scientists and others to understand how different systems interact with each other and contribute to the mission as a whole.
For a spaceship, a “system‘ is a combination of elements that work together to meet specific needs, often including scientific instruments, spacecraft hardware and software. Systems engineers ensure that the different areas of the mission understand how their decisions affect others working on other parts of the system. It is the job of systems engineers to balance scientific goals with technical requirements, manage demanding schedules, facilitate communication between teams, and help teams make the best use of shared resources—while ensuring that the overall scientific goals of the mission are met can become.
“Nobody can know everything or do everything,” said Nari Hwangpo, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Europa Clipper. Systems engineers draw on previous experience to take on new and interesting challenges. “That’s why we’re often referred to as all-rounders.”
The Europa Clipper spacecraft will visit Jupiter’s moon Europa to determine whether the icy moon may be viable. To achieve this, in addition to a gravitational/radioscience survey, the spacecraft will have nine science instruments to study the interior of Europa, each with its own associated hardware and science team members. The mission also includes subsystems for power, avionics, telecommunications, temperature management, propulsion, guidance and controls, ground operations of all these components and more.
Dedicated engineers are working on each of these mission components. It is the responsibility of the systems engineers to look at these parts of the project in the light of the whole and ensure that they integrate effectively with the overall mission of Europa Clipper. For example, various engineers can calculate how thick the radiation shield needs to be for a specific scientific instrument, or design the wiring diagram for the instrument, or determine the temperature or power requirements of the instrument. Typically, these engineers report their work to a systems engineer, who helps ensure that the instrument successfully meets its scientific requirements while meeting the mission’s schedule, budget, and risk requirements.
Hwangpo’s focus is on the Mission Operations System, which includes mission planning, ground data systems, navigation, software and instrument teams, among others. She leads the mission’s Flight Rules Working Group, which works out in advance how to respond to various scenarios the spacecraft might encounter during its mission. To do this, she works with the Conscious Engineers—the experts who direct the development of specific parts and systems in a spacecraft. “I call the vigilant engineers together and make sure they give me a list of software limitations — rules about what not to do — so we can avoid damaging the spacecraft’s hardware or damaging the mission’s science returns.” affect,” she said.
“System engineering goes beyond smartness,” said Hwangpo. It also requires a broad technical background, strong leadership skills and lifelong learning. “We have to be team players. It can be challenging, but it’s worth it.”
Marianne Gonzalez joined JPL as an intern six years ago. Now she splits her time there between chemical engineering research and systems engineering for Europa Clipper’s magnetometer instrument. Gonzalez has worked for other missions but says Europa Clipper’s complexity is a different experience. “I have never worked on such a scale. There are so many people working on this mission.”
One of Gonzalez’s many responsibilities is testing the flight software to verify that the magnetometer’s thermal control system for the instrument’s magnetic field detectors, called fluxgate sensors, is working correctly. “The fluxgate sensors are very sensitive to temperature,” Gonzalez said, “so the instrument has its own temperature control system. I’m working to ensure that the spacecraft passes temperature control to the instrument when the magnetometer is active.” Gonzalez is also testing how the magnetometer behaves if ground controllers accidentally send it the wrong command.
The technology exists to support the scientific goals of the mission. This fact has not escaped Gonzalez. “I find it interesting to go to a place like Europe where we might find evidence of viable environments. I am very passionate about what I am working on and excited to see what we will discover.”
In addition to the challenges inherent in these roles, during the pandemic, systems engineers like Gonzalez and Hwangpo have continued to make strides while working remotely by adjusting their work-life balance to be safe while they continue to make strides in exploring Europe.