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Hands-off Engineering

As New Horizons beams back images of Pluto, MIE Associate Professor Andrew Gouldstone stresses the importance of making sure that something that isn't accessible for repairs will last.


Source: iNSolution

I love seeing new far­away images taken from space, and on Monday—the day before the NASA New Hori­zons spacecraft’s his­toric flyby of Pluto—I found myself talking to someone who shares that interest: Northeastern’s Andrew Gould­stone, asso­ciate pro­fessor of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering and asso­ciate chair of mechan­ical engineering.

I know what you mean,” Gould­stone said in a phone inter­view Monday after­noon. “When I get stressed, I can always look at pic­tures of Saturn taken by (NASA’s) Cassini.”

So count Gould­stone among those who will be anx­iously waiting to see what cool images and sci­en­tific data New Hori­zons sends back after Tuesday’s flyby. After launching nine years ago, the space­craft will come within 7,767 miles of the dwarf planet at about 31,000 miles per hour. In fact, mis­sion sci­en­tists on Monday announced that the mis­sion has now set­tled a decades-​​long debate: Pluto is 1,473 miles in diam­eter, which is larger than many pre­vious estimates.

Gould­stone is also the fac­ulty adviser for the North­eastern chapter of the Amer­ican Insti­tute of Aero­nau­tics, whose stu­dents recently under­took their toughest mis­sion to date: com­peting in NASA’s Stu­dent Launch Ini­tia­tive. The com­pe­ti­tion tasked stu­dent teams with designing and building a rocket. That work, they were told, could pos­sibly inspire how NASA approaches future mis­sions to Mars.

Andrew Buggee, S’16, the stu­dent organization’s past pres­i­dent, wrote in an email to me Monday night that he’s engaged many stu­dents in con­ver­sa­tion about the Pluto mis­sion. He noted that many non-​​science majors he’s spoken with have been par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in Pluto’s demo­tion from its status as a planet not long after the New Hori­zons launch, and they hope this mis­sion could reverse its rank. “The fact that non-​​science majors share the same wonder and enthu­siasm about our most dis­tant neighbor in the solar system makes me very hopeful for the future of space explo­ration,” he wrote.

Regard­less of whether stu­dents are inter­ested in the New Hori­zons space­craft, Gould­stone said all engi­neering stu­dents can learn an impor­tant lesson about “hands-​​off engi­neering” from the Pluto mission.

Our stu­dents love being hands-​​on, and they are always willing to take some­thing, built it, tinker with it, and adjust it,” he explained. “But what if that some­thing is 100,000 miles away, or 3 bil­lion miles away like New Hori­zons? If some­thing goes wrong, you can’t just go up there and fix it. You have to make sure that you’ve designed it to work prop­erly when you’re not there to take care of it.”

New Hori­zons launched on Jan. 19, 2006, and about a year later it flew by Jupiter, get­ting a gravity assist that saved three years of flight time. Fully fueled, it weighed just over 1,000 pounds at launch. Designed to operate on a lim­ited power source, the space­craft needs less power than a pair of 100-​​watt light bulbs to com­plete its mis­sion at Pluto.

Gould­stone said that stu­dents should take note of the immense amount of detail and con­fi­dence NASA engi­neers put into cre­ating a space­craft capable of trav­eling 3 bil­lion miles away, knowing “we have one shot at this.” That’s a lesson, he said, young engi­neers should apply to what­ever they’re working on, whether they’re designing an inte­grated cir­cuit or building an air­craft or a bridge. “This Pluto mis­sion is an extreme and vis­ible public demon­stra­tion of this idea,” he said. “That’s the most valu­able lesson our engi­neering stu­dents can learn from this.”

Gould­stone is not a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist; his research focuses in large part on bio­me­chanics and mate­rials sci­ence. But he told me he was drawn to the sci­ences and ulti­mately his career from studying planets as a child. “I like to think any­body who got into sci­ence as a kid started off reading about planets, dinosaurs, or hur­ri­canes,” he said.

At the heart of his interest in the planets, Gould­stone explained, is the same thing that he said has driven space mis­sions for decades: an innate curiosity of what is around us. He said the New Hori­zons mis­sion has reminded him that in his own research, it’s OK to be curious.

I think what this mis­sion has also shown is that we’re still allowed to be curious about stuff, and we’re still explorers,” he said.

Related Faculty: Andrew Gouldstone

Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering