Becoming a Satellite Engineer: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a satellite engineering career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary information to see if becoming a satellite engineer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Satellite Engineering

Satellite engineers are aerospace engineers engaged in the design and manufacturing of satellites for defense, communications or scientific research. Find out the pros and cons of becoming a satellite engineer to make an informed decision about your career path.

Pros and Cons of Being a Satellite Engineer
High income potential ($105,000 median salary as of May 2014)*
Wide variety of specialized career options**
Could have the opportunity to contribute to national defense (13% work directly for the federal government)*
Potential to develop and design new satellite technologies*

Cons of Being a Satellite Engineer
Lengthy educational requirements (5-year BS/MS or advanced degree required to work in research and development)*
Licensure required to advance*
Slow job growth (7% predicted increase from 2012-2022)*
Government security clearance required to obtain certain jobs***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Society of Satellite Professionals International, ***Multiple Job Postings (April 2012).

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Satellite engineers typically develop and design satellites and related technology, as well as coordinate and oversee their manufacturing. Other responsibilities could include installing, testing and redesigning satellites and related technology. As a satellite engineer, you may also participate in developing diagnostic criteria to detect malfunctioning satellites, as well as create quality standards for product design and manufacturing. You'll typically work on a full-time basis and spend most of your time in an office. Areas in which you could specialize include launch services, structural design, satellite operations, instrumentation and communication, propulsion and combustion, robotics and ground systems integration.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, aerospace engineers, a classification of which satellite engineers are a subset, earned a median annual salary of about $105,000, as of May 2014. Employment for satellite engineers was predicted to grow 7% from 2012-2022, which is slower than average. However, the security clearance requirements for many positions often prevent outsourcing. Additionally, refocusing by government organizations is expected to lead more private companies to undertake satellite services, which could lead to greater numbers of job openings in the private sector.

What Are the Requirements?

In order to become a satellite engineer, you'll typically need to complete a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering or a related engineering field. It's important select a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), because obtaining a degree from an accredited institution is a requirement of obtaining licensure in the future. You may also wish to pursue a master's degree in engineering or a 5-year bachelor's/master's combined degree program. An advanced degree is needed to work in research and development or teach at the collegiate level.

Licensure

When you first start working as a satellite engineer, you won't need to be licensed. However, as your career progresses, you'll need to obtain a professional engineer (PE) license, according to the BLS. Obtaining your PE license requires the completion of an ABET-accredited program, passing the Fundamentals of Engineering examination, obtaining professional experience and, finally, passing the PE examination. Depending on the state in which you reside, you may also need to complete continuing education courses to maintain your license.

Useful Skills

According to the BLS, satellite engineers typically need strong analytical, mathematical and problem solving skills to understand designs and troubleshoot problems. Business skills, such as the ability to understand commercial law, may also be necessary to ensure that federal government standards are met when performing work. Strong verbal and written communications skills are also essential when communicating with and working with other professionals.

Real Job Listings for Satellite Engineers

Satellite engineers perform a variety of tasks requiring specialized skills in mathematics, telecommunications, networking, radio frequencies, information technology and other related areas. For positions that involve national security, satellite engineers might be required to obtain Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearances. The following real job listings posted in April 2011 provide an idea of the qualifications employers are seeking:

  • A private engineering contractor in Virginia is seeking a midlevel satellite engineer to support communication satellites using computer-based tools. The engineer is also responsible for maintaining and optimizing transponder frequency. An active TS/SCI is required, as well as a bachelor's degree in engineering, physics, telecommunications or a related field. Experience is required in areas such as satellite communication systems, digital modulation techniques, application of engineering principles and RF propagation. A master's degree and familiarity with government intelligence environments are preferred.
  • A California space and defense contractor is looking for a satellite and component manufacturing engineer. Responsibilities include providing operational support, developing databases, programming equipment and assessing product quality. A bachelor's degree in industrial, manufacturing or mechanical engineering and familiarity with various assembly processes and computer programs are required.
  • A satellite communications/military contractor in Virginia is looking for a satellite network engineer with active TS/SCI and polygraph clearance to support, develop and maintain satellite systems and databases. Other requirements include a bachelor's degree in engineering or computer science and 10-12 years of professional experience, including five years of experience working in the telecommunications, satellite and/or information technology industries.
  • A Virginia telecommunications company is seeking a satellite systems engineer with at least secret clearance and ten years of experience designing, developing and testing communication systems. The job requires overseeing the development, design, implementation and improvement of large-scale communication systems. A Bachelor of Science degree in one or more engineering disciplines and associate Cisco networking certification are required.

How to Stand Out in Your Field

Obtaining professional certifications relevant to your career path can help you stand out. Cisco networking certifications, for instance, offer credentials at the associate, professional and expert levels that could be beneficial to satellite engineers working with routing and switching technology. According to Cisco, its certifications are widely respected and can provide measurable rewards to professionals who hold them.

Earn an Advanced Engineering Degree

The Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) strongly recommends that future satellite engineers pursue a Master of Science degree in a specialized area of engineering. While bachelor's degree programs often provide fundamental knowledge of engineering, advanced degree programs can allow you to specialize in key areas, such as RF/microwave engineering or antenna engineering. Other graduate-level degree programs that you could consider include a Master of Science in Astronautical Engineering and a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering Sciences with a concentration in astrodynamics and satellite navigation systems.

Participate in an Internship

Many companies and organizations provide internship opportunities that allow you to gain industry experience in a specialized field. For instance, private companies that provide launch or orbiting technology services may provide you with direct occupational experience. For those interested in space exploration, NASA offers internships, scholarships, research opportunities and awards for qualified students.

Alternative Careers

Aerospace Engineering or Operations Technician

If the lengthy education requirements are a deterrent but you're still interested in working with aerospace or satellite technology, consider a career as an aerospace engineering or operations technician. These professionals maintain and operate aerospace testing equipment, aerospace parts, computer equipment and instruments. An associate's degree is the typical requirement to obtain one of these jobs, but a vocational diploma or certificate can also lead to employment.

According to the BLS, aerospace engineering and operations technicians earned a median annual salary of around $61,000, as of May 2011, which is significantly lower than the salary of a satellite engineer. Further, employment for these professionals was predicted to decrease 2% from 2010-2010, with 200 jobs being lost. However, because security clearance is often required for these jobs, outsourcing is not predicted to be a factor. Additionally, there could be an increased demand for technicians who work on propulsion systems or engines.

Mechanical Engineer

Individuals interested in becoming engineers, but who would rather work with mechanical devices than aerospace products, can consider careers as mechanical engineers. Mechanical engineers engage in the production, design and testing of industrial products, such as machines, tools and engines. Educational requirements for mechanical engineers are comparable to those of satellite engineers, with the minimum requirement generally being a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Additionally, mechanical engineers typically work towards obtaining a P.E. license, which is required if they provide services to the public.

As of May 2011, mechanical engineers earned a median salary of about $79,000, which is lower than the salary of an aerospace engineer. Employment for mechanical engineers was predicted to increase 9% from 2010-2010. The best prospects for mechanical engineers were projected to be in the areas of energy efficient vehicles, alternative energy sources and nanotechnology products, such as computer chips. According to BLS data, 21% of mechanical engineers are employed in architectural, engineering and related services.

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