Interview with Nicolas Schmit, Attitude Control Engineer
“Global Synergy: Igniting Satellite Innovation”

What is your team’s objective and your role at Synspective?

Nicolas: We, the onboard software team, are developing the software that powers the computer in our satellites. Our onboard software serves two purposes. Firstly, it is essential in keeping the satellite operational: ensuring it is getting power, stays at the right temperature, and that we can properly communicate with it. Secondly, the onboard software serves to execute Earth observation missions. This includes controlling the satellite during an observation to orient the radar towards the observation target, and turning on the radar at the correct timing.

In my dual role, I blend technical expertise with leadership. As the Attitude Control Engineer, my responsibilities include designing, developing, testing, and maintaining the systems used to control the satellite’s orientation (attitude)  in space. A significant portion of my work involves developing the simulation environment we use for software validation. Concurrently, as the manager of the onboard software team, I oversee the daily operations of our eight-member team. This also includes coordinating activities across the company.

Could you tell us about your background – how did you connect with Synspective and what made you decide to join the company?

Nicolas: My academic background is in control engineering and space systems. I have hands-on experience in attitude and orbit control system design, and modeling and simulation of multi-physics systems. 

Prior to Synspective, I worked at MathWorks, which develops MATLAB (a software tool widely used in engineering and scientific fields). I worked as a technical consultant and gained expertise in a broad range of areas from physical modeling and control engineering to data analytics and predictive maintenance. Before that, I worked at a Japanese heavy industry manufacturer for four years, working on data analytics and health monitoring of heavy pieces of equipment such as jet engines and gas turbines.

In early 2020, I started to think about new challenges. Ever since I was a kid, I had an interest in the space industry. I had worked on a lot of interesting projects, but none of them were related to space. A recruiter introduced me to Synspective and I was interested in working at a New Space startup. Through the interview, I felt that Synspective’s vision and business plan for the future were solid. It was an intuitive decision for me to decide to take on the challenge here, and I have no regrets!

As an engineer, how do you personally perceive the rewarding aspects of supporting the core of satellite operations, such as attitude control?

Nicolas: When I joined Synspective, I had the chance to design the attitude control system that is now used on all our satellites. There is a lot of creative work and problem-solving in the design process.  The satisfaction of seeing my work being used in orbit in a commercial satellite is incredibly rewarding.

Imagine spending months writing complicated math formulas to control the satellite’s attitude during an observation, then implementing them in the software, and testing the software again and again. Then, after the launch, the satellite manages to consistently take pictures right on target from orbit, from hundreds of kilometers above the Earth, while flying at a speed of more than 7 kilometers per second.

It’s a very exciting place to be as an engineer!

As an engineer,  what effort is required individually or as a team to maintain and improve your skills?

Nicolas: The company allocates a budget for self-learning. We encourage team members to use it to improve their skills by taking online courses, buying books for study, and other educational endeavors. Then, we encourage them to share their knowledge with the rest of the team, and for senior members to mentor more junior members.

As for myself, I read technical books about space systems design and control systems, and follow space-related news as well. Since I do a lot of work using MATLAB, I also go through the notes of every new release to learn about the new features and improvements to the software, then share the information with other engineers on our internal communication tool.

Your team is made up of members from various countries, making it diverse. How do you feel about working in Japan? 

Nicolas: Well, I really like working here at Synspective. What makes Synspective unique is that the backgrounds of the employees are very diverse, including individuals from typical large Japanese companies as well as individuals from foreign consulting firms and startups. In addition, there are also many engineers from overseas, making it an organization with a unique culture.