Q&A with spacecraft engineer Abbie Hutty

Inspired to pursue a career in space by the late Prof Colin Pillinger’s Beagle II mission, Abbie Hutty is now developing the rover for the European Space Agency’s upcoming ExoMars mission. Ahead of her appearance at The Engineer Conference next month we asked Abbie about her current role.

What does your job involve?

I am the structures engineer on the ExoMars mission- so I co-ordinate all of the specialists- Design Office, Stress, Dynamic Analysis, Materials and Processes, Manufacture, etc – to come up with a Rover Structure that meets all the requirements on it. (It is a combined technical and man/project management role)

What is the big challenge you have to address? 

Our biggest challenges structurally are loads and thermal case. We hit the ground at 15g axially (plus 10g lateral) and have individual unit load cases up to 180g, and the landing case occurs at a temperature of -50 degrees C. Thermally once on the planet we are exposed to night time temperature of -125 degrees C, and can have daytime temperatures (when we are expected to be fully functional) as low as 85 degrees (or as high as 5 degrees).

Abbie Hutty Portrait

These ranges obviously lead to massive problems with differential thermal expansion in the structure, but also in the electronics and exposed mechanisms, such as the drive motors. We also have to constantly heat our rover to prevent everything from just freezing.

We have a power budget of only 700W, to include driving, processing, and heating as well as the actual “science” payload. Other challenges – radiation- meaning our rad hard processors are down at 72 Mips, and this is having to perform full image processing and constant drive adjustments to achieve the full autonomous navigation requirement.

Dust, signal delay, terrain, low pressure, planetary protection (everything has to be super clean so that we don’t contaminate another planet with Earth-life, so has to be intensively sterilised before launch with Hydrogen peroxide plasma, vacuum, bake out at 125 degrees C, or gamma ray irradiation- also means we can’t use any organic materials such as rubbers, most lubricants, a lot of polymers..), I could go on….Basically everything is a challenge!

Were you always interested in space or is this just where your career took you?

I always thought space was cool, but it was never a specific passion, probably mostly because I didn’t know there was a UK space industry as a child, so felt it was unattainable as a career. When I was doing my GCSEs and trying to work out what I wanted to do, Beagle II (probe mission to mars) was in the news, along with the fact that “UK Scientists and Engineers” were working on it. This made me look into engineering, as it countered my misconception that engineering meant fixing broken household goods, and showed me that engineering can mean cutting edge technology. Since then I pursued engineering, whilst always taking any opportunities to move closer to “space engineering”. At the beginning I was trying to be realistic in my aspirations- I thought getting a job in the space industry was a pipe dream, but I have moved progressively closer and closer to this until I am now working on a Mars mission- the very thing that inspired me to look into engineering in the first place.

What do you like most about your work?

I love the challenge of engineering, and the collaborative working environment with other experts. In my particular industry I also get the thrill of going down to the clean rooms and seeing hardware that I’ve designed that is actually going into space, and to know that I have designed stuff that is currently orbiting the planet, and that one day will be on another planet. I also love being able to use the word “Martian” legitimately in technical reports.

Abbie Hutty is a Spacecraft and Structures Engineer at Airbus Defence & Space (formerly known as Astrium)

She will be talking in detail about the challenges of the ExoMars on Tuesday 3rd June at The Engineer Conference 2014

Click here to find out more and to register for your free place