Unique spacecraft thermal management course launches at Cornell

Following its successful launch, a unique spacecraft course offered by Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering will be making its return next academic year.

The course, Spacecraft Thermal Management, was piloted in the spring and included the opportunity for students to research, design, model and analyze a spacecraft heat shield, all while receiving several guest lectures from NASA scientists.

The course builds on the Sibley School’s renowned aerospace curriculum and is novel among other offerings in higher education, according to course instructor Sadaf Sobhani, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“With my previous experience at NASA Ames working on heat shield material design and characterization, I was eager to introduce a thermal management course to complement our space-related curriculum,” said Sobhani, a former research associate at the NASA Ames Research Center. “Beyond thermal protection during atmospheric entry, this class includes concepts relevant to thermal management during all mission phases. Combining all of these concepts really makes this class unique and gives students a comprehensive overview of the spacecraft thermal system.”

The course overviews the physical principles governing spacecraft thermal management technologies, including conductive and radiative heat transfer, passive and active fluid transport, and ablation. Students use that knowledge to gain a deeper understanding of thermal control systems, and learn new software to predict heat shielding performance of different designs.

After researching spacecraft thermal control and protection, students then design, model and analyze a heat shield. Projects during the course’s first offering explored lightweight concrete mixtures for planetary reentry, thermal protection requirements to enter Venus’s atmosphere, and optimizing performance for the Mars Sample Return Earth reentry.

Among the spring course’s guest lecturers were a scientist who worked on the Entry System Modeling Team at the NASA Ames Research Center, and a thermal analyst at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who worked on designing the thermal management system for the James Webb space telescope.


Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Provided

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