Aerospace engineering is the branch of engineering that concerns aircraft, spacecraft, and related topics. It is often called aeronautical engineering, particularly when referring solely to aircraft, and astronautical engineering, when referring to spacecraft.
Aerospace engineers design, develop, and test aircraft, spacecraft, satellites and missiles and or supervise the manufacture of these products. Those who work with aircraft are called aeronautical engineers, and those working specifically with spacecraft are astronautical engineers. Aerospace engineers develop new technologies for use in aviation, defense systems, and space exploration, often specializing in areas such as structural design, guidance, navigation and control, instrumentation and communication, or production methods. They also may specialize in a particular type of aerospace product, such as commercial aircraft, military fighter jets, helicopters, spacecraft, or missiles and rockets, and may become experts in aerodynamics, thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, propulsion, acoustics, or guidance and control systems.
Some of the elements of aerospace engineering are:
- Fluid mechanics - the study of fluid flow around objects. Specifically aerodynamics concerning the flow of air over bodies such as wings or through objects such as wind tunnels (see also lift and aeronautics).
- Dynamics and engineering mechanics - the study of movement, forces, moments in mechanical systems.
- Mathematics - as most subjects within aerospace engineering involve equations and mathematical manipulation and derivations, a solid and comprehensive study of mathematics is required to enable effective learning in the other modules.
- Electrotechnology - the study of electronics within engineering.
- Propulsion - the energy to move a vehicle through the air (or in outer space) is provided by internal combustion engines, jet engines and turbomachinery, or rockets (see also propeller and spacecraft propulsion).
- Control engineering - the study of mathematical modelling of systems and designing them in order that they behave in the desired way. As aircraft flight control systems are becoming increasingly complex, they can be studied as a separate module.
- Aircraft structures - design of the physical configuration of the craft to withstand the forces encountered during flight. Aerospace engineering aims very much at keeping structures lightweight.
- Materials science - related to structures, aerospace engineering also studies the materials of which the aerospace structures are to be built. New materials with very specific properties are invented, or existing ones are modified to improve their performance.
- Aeroelasticity - the interaction of aerodynamic forces and structural flexibility, potentially causing flutter, divergence, etc.
- Avionics - specifically concerning the design and programming of any computer systems on board an aircraft or spacecraft and the simulation of systems. Navigation equipment may be the focus of this study.
- Risk and reliability - the study of risk and reliability assessment techniques and the mathematics involved in the quantitative methods.
- Noise control - the study of the mechanics of sound transfer. Required as noise levels are a massive consideration in the current aerospace industry.
- Flight test - the discipline of designing and executing flight test programs in order to gather and analyze performance and handling qualities data in order to determine if an aircraft meets its design and performance goals and certification requirements.
The basis of most of these elements lies in theoretical mathematics, such as fluid dynamics for aerodynamics or the equations of motion for flight dynamics. However, there is also a large empirical component. Historically, this empirical component was derived from testing of scale models and prototypes, either in wind tunnels or in the free atmosphere. More recently, advances in computing have enabled the use of computational fluid dynamics to simulate the behavior of fluid, reducing time and expense spent on wind-tunnel testing.
Additionally, aerospace engineering addresses the integration of all components that constitute an aerospace vehicle (subsystems including power, communications, thermal control, life support, etc.) and its life cycle (design, temperature, pressure, radiation, velocity, life time), leading to extraordinary challenges and solutions specific to the domain of aerospace systems engineering.
Popular culture has not been unaffected by this branch of engineering. The term "rocket scientist" is at times used to describe a person of remarkable or in the considered context higher than average intelligence. Aerospace engineering has also been represented as the more "glittery" pinnacle of engineering. The movie Apollo 13 depicts the ground team as a group of heroes in a Hollywood fashion glorifying the intelligence and competence of white shirt and tie professionals as a sharp contrast to pop culture trends. This was later extended in more detail in the spin-off series From the Earth to the Moon.
Aerospace engineering degrees
Aerospace (or aeronautical) engineering can be studied at the bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. levels in aerospace engineering departments at many universities, and in mechanical engineering departments at others.