Photo of Jon Van Noord

Space Physics Q&A: An Interview with Chief Mechanical Engineer Jon Van Noord

Dr. Jon Van Noord works as Chief Mechanical Engineer in Research at the Space Physics Research Laboratory and XTRM Labs. In this Q&A, he shares some of his notable work at SPRL.

Dr. Jon Van Noord works as Chief Mechanical Engineer in Research at the Space Physics Research Laboratory (SPRL) and XTRM Labs. Originally from South Holland, Illinois, he earned his Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan. His work has been instrumental on the CYGNSS Mission, and he also worked as a Research Engineer at the NASA Glenn Research Center. 

Q. What is your research area or engineering focus?

A. My engineering focus is the mechanical design of satellites and space based instruments.  This typically deals with the structures and mechanisms on these items.  It involves designing to survive the stress of a launch and operating in the harsh environment of space. 

A particular focus that has followed me throughout my career is the thermal analysis and design for space based applications. The thermal design is important to operating the instruments to maintain certain temperature ranges for them to be reliable. My Ph.D. under Dean Alec Gallimore focused on determining the heat generated by an ion thruster and predictions of the temperature distribution of the thruster. More recently, I was the lead for the thermal design of the CYGNSS satellites.

Q. Tell us more about your work. Could you give an example of a project you have worked on?

A. The CYGNSS project was one of the most noteworthy projects I have worked on recently. In that project I was responsible for the thermal analysis, design and testing of the spacecrafts. In that role, I worked closely with the spacecraft designers to ensure that all the parts of the spacecraft were maintained at temperatures where the mission could operate reliably.  I performed analysis of many different variations of the design, specified many different coatings and other materials on the spacecraft, and lead the testing of the spacecrafts in thermal vacuum chambers to validate their design. On that project, I was predominantly responsible for the thermal design of the satellite, but worked closely with the structural design effort too. I performed vibe testing and thermal vacuum testing on prototype CYGNSS hardware using the environmental testing facilities at SPRL.

Photo of Jon Van Noord
Dr. Jon Van Noord works on the instruments for NASA’s CYGNSS Mission (Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System) in the Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

Q. How did you decide to pursue this type of engineering?

A. I have been fascinated by outer space from a young age. I grew up in the age where humans had just been on the moon and the space shuttle was being developed for the next stage of exploration. Movies and shows like Star Wars and Star Trek were ground-breaking and cast a vision of what life would be like among the stars. I had a curiosity about the planets and stars that I could see in the night sky. 

Growing up in a working middle class neighborhood, I did not really have any idea how I was going to do that and didn’t have anyone to mentor me to figure that out. But I did have parents who encouraged me to follow that dream.  In high school, I didn’t know any engineers or what an engineer did, but a school survey I took indicated that I had interests and an aptitude to be an engineer. I was good at math and science and have always desired to understand more about how the world worked.  In my undergraduate education at Calvin University, I chose Mechanical Engineering because the idea of working with structure, mechanisms, and thermal looked interesting even though I still was unsure how that would connect with working in the space industry.  

To further my path towards that goal, I chose to come to University of Michigan for graduate school due to its highly-rated Aerospace Engineering program.  My academic advisor was Prof. William Anderson who was an enthusiastic and great advisor to have. During my first year, I met with several professors to try to find a good match to pursue a Ph.D.  In that process, I was fortunate enough to encounter Alec Gallimore with whom I could use the finite element modeling skills that I had been developing and apply it to a NASA funded project.  I knew little about electric propulsion, but jumped at the chance to work with him and NASA to develop the thermal model of an ion thruster.

Q. What is one of the greatest benefits that have come from working in your field?

A. There have been several great benefits from working in the field of designing for outer space. These have included working on hardware that has literally made it to other planets, seeing other items that I have not worked on like the Mars Sojourner and Curiosity Rovers close up, and meeting people who have done amazing things.  When I worked at JPL, I was able to talk with people who worked on Galileo. When I worked at NASA, I was able to meet or see numerous astronauts including Jim Lovell, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong, to name a few.  The work allowed me the privilege of attending Neil Armstrong’s memorial at the National Cathedral!  

Q. At the University of Michigan and SPRL, what gives you the most pride?

A. What gives me the most pride about working at SPRL is getting to work with a great team of people who are routinely designing and building spaceflight hardware for interesting projects.  To know that things I am working on are impactful and improving our knowledge of our planet and the broader universe while also providing benefits to a broad amount of people.  One of the highlights of my time at SPRL was being in the Missions Operation Center for the launch and checkout of the CYGNSS satellites. It was rewarding to see the first data coming back for a mission that I had a significant role in and seeing the design I had come up with operating successfully.

Q. What would you consider to be the defining point in your career?

A. The defining point of my career was meeting Dr. Alec Gallimore and working with him on ion thrusters for NASA. It is through that relationship and the work for him that I was able to gain the experience to work for NASA. It put me on the professional trajectory that I am still continuing on today.

Q. What is the most important lesson you have learned along the way?

A. One important lesson that I have learned and tell students (including my own daughter) is that if you want to be an engineer try and get practical experience building something as early as possible.  It might be on a FIRST robotics team in grade school or high school, or it could be their own personal projects or on a student team here at Michigan. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions to understand.