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25+ Research Ideas in Aerospace Engineering for High School Students

Aerospace engineering is an exciting domain that merges the principles of physics, mathematics, and engineering to design and analyze aircraft and spacecraft. If you have a passion for flight and space exploration, then you should know that while it's the pilots and astronauts pushing the physical frontiers, it’s the researchers and theorists doing the heavy lifting to push the edges of the theoretical envelope. Though it may seem daunting, you should not hold yourself back from pursuing research while still in school, as it will highlight your initiative and dedication, while actually building your analytical expertise, core domain knowledge, and problem-solving skills. Of course, it can also significantly boost your profile for the purpose of college applications.

In this blog, we present 25+ research ideas across various subdomains within aerospace engineering that you could consider exploring.

How should you go about pursuing research in engineering as a high schooler?

First and foremost, you should be aware of your relative inexperience and therefore choose a research topic that’s both accessible and relevant. The ideal subject should address a contemporary challenge or an existing knowledge gap, but as long as you try to innovate and add value to the field while having the resources and tools to do so, then you’re in the right direction. Once you've finalized a promising research topic, decide your methodology, and presentation of results, and of course be aware of any ethical considerations.

Topic 1: Aircraft Design and Aerodynamics

If the magic of flight has always fascinated you, then these are the topics for you. By diving into aircraft design and aerodynamics, you'll unravel how aircraft defy gravity, the principles that govern their design, and the complex mechanics of the movement of air molecules around an aircraft's body.

Good to have before you start:

  • A basic understanding of fluid dynamics, interest in aircraft design, and familiarity with computer-aided design (CAD) tools.

  • Convenient access to a computer design lab or CAD software - a lot of the theoretical research you do will require this specialized software.

Some potential topics:

1. Next-Gen Aircraft Designs: Delve into futuristic designs that prioritize sustainability, efficiency, and passenger comfort.

2. Stability and Control of Aircraft: Understand the delicate balance that keeps aircraft stable in the skies.

3. High-Speed Flight Aerodynamics: Explore the challenges faced when breaking the sound barrier and the realm of supersonic flight.

4. Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs): Investigate the world of tiny aircraft and their potential applications in surveillance, research, and more.

Ideas contributed by Lumiere Mentors from the Imperial College London, Texas A&M University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Topic 2: Spacecraft and Satellite Systems

Venturing beyond our atmosphere, this topic will take you on a journey through the vast expanse of space. From the intricacies of spacecraft design to the silent sentinels (satellites) that orbit our planet, you'll gain insights into how humans have extended their reach to the stars and the technologies that make space exploration possible. This is a beginner-friendly topic because much of the data you might need is already in the public domain, courtesy of NASA, and the topics are largely theoretical and give you a good opportunity to build your knowledge of physics and mathematics.

Good to have before you start:

  • A foundation in orbital mechanics, interest in space exploration, and some understanding of electronic systems.

Some potential topics:

5. Reusable Rocket Technologies: Study the mechanics and feasibility of rockets designed for multiple launches.

6. Satellite Communication Systems: Explore the technology behind satellite-based communication and its advancements.

7. Spacecraft Propulsion Systems: Investigate innovative methods to propel spacecraft beyond Earth's orbit.

8. CubeSats and Miniaturized Satellites: Delve into the design and applications of small-scale satellites.

Ideas contributed by Lumiere Mentors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Cornell University.

Topic 3: Materials and Structures in Aerospace

At the core of aerospace engineering lies the challenge of creating structures that are both lightweight and incredibly strong. These topics delve into the advanced materials and innovative designs that ensure aircraft and spacecraft can withstand the extreme conditions they face.

Good to have before you start:

  • Knowledge of material properties, understanding of stress and strain, and interest in innovative material solutions.

  • Access to a materials lab where you can test material properties yourself.

  • Some mentorship - due to the hands-on and experimental nature of these topics, we suggest that you work with a teacher, a mentor, or at the very least a lab assistant who can guide you on the basics and direct your testing.

  • Safety wear - as always, when working with materials, it’s important to wear appropriate safety gear.

Some potential topics:

9. Composite Materials in Aerospace: Learn about the blend of materials that offer strength without adding weight.

10. Thermal Protection Systems: Understand the shields that protect spacecraft from the intense heat of re-entry.

11. Aircraft Wing Morphing: Discover the adaptive designs that allow aircraft wings to change shape in response to flight conditions.

12. Nanostructured Materials in Aerospace: Dive into the microscopic world of nanomaterials and their transformative potential in aerospace applications.

Ideas contributed by a Lumiere Mentor from Cornell University.

Topic 4: Avionics and Control Systems

The brains behind every aerospace vehicle, avionics, and control system ensure that aircraft and spacecraft can navigate, communicate, and operate safely. This topic offers a deep dive into the electronic and software systems that are the nerve center of any aerospace vehicle.

Good to have before you start:

  • Familiarity with electronic systems, understanding of control theory, and interest in software development.

  • Some experience with coding and knowledge of common programming language(s)

Some potential topics:

13. Autonomous Flight Systems: Explore the technologies enabling aircraft to fly without human intervention.

14. Spacecraft Navigation Systems: Delve into the advanced systems that guide spacecraft through the vastness of space.

15. Air Traffic Management: Understand the complex systems that coordinate the movement of thousands of aircraft in our skies.

16. Sensor Integration in Aircraft: Learn about the myriad sensors that monitor everything from airspeed to engine health.

Topic 5: Propulsion and Energy Systems

The driving force of aerospace vehicles, propulsion systems, is what makes flight and space travel possible. This topic will introduce you to the engines that roar on takeoff, the silent thrusters of spacecraft, and the future of propulsion technologies. It is a good intersection of chemical, thermal, and design engineering that is accessible to newcomers and great for building your knowledge.

Good to have before you start:

  • A grasp of thermodynamics, an understanding of fluid mechanics, and an interest in energy solutions.

  • Some mentorship - since this field involves expertise in multiple topics, you will greatly benefit from a mentor who can guide your efforts.

Some potential topics:

17. Electric Propulsion in Aircraft: Discover the shift towards greener, electrically powered flight.

18. Rocket Engine Innovations: Understand the fiery powerhouses that send rockets soaring into space.

19. Alternative Fuels in Aviation: Explore the potential of biofuels and other alternatives to traditional aviation fuels.

20. Energy Storage in Aerospace: Delve into the challenges and solutions of storing energy for long-duration space missions.

Ideas contributed by Lumiere Mentors from Cornell University and Texas A&M University.

Topic 6: Aerospace Safety and Reliability

When you’re moving at hundreds or even thousands of miles per hour, safety becomes paramount. This topic focuses on the designs, systems, and protocols that ensure every flight is safe, and every space mission is executed without a hitch. It's an essential area for those who prioritize safety and reliability above all.

21. Aircraft Crashworthiness: Learn about the designs that protect passengers and crew during the unthinkable.

22. Spacecraft Life Support Systems: Understand the vital systems that keep astronauts alive in the hostile environment of space.

23. Reliability Analysis of Aerospace Systems: Dive into the methods used to ensure every component of an aircraft or spacecraft is reliable.

24. Emergency Landing Systems: Discover the technologies that can bring an aircraft safely back to the ground in emergencies.

Topic 7: Aerospace Environmental Impact

As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, understanding the impact of aerospace activities on our planet is crucial. This is a future-oriented topic that deals with the environmental fallout of humanity’s race for the stars. This topic will introduce you to the challenges and innovations aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of flying and space exploration.

Good to have before you start:

  • A foundation in environmental science, understanding of emissions and their effects, and interest in sustainable solutions.

  • Some mentorship - while the ideas below are primarily theoretical, submitting an innovative research paper in this field will require good knowledge across multiple fields and the interplay between aerospace and sustainability engineering. Your chances and learning will be greatly enhanced if you find a mentor.

Some potential topics:

25. Aircraft Emissions and Climate Change: Explore the impact of aviation on our climate and the steps being taken to mitigate it.

26. Space Debris Management: Delve into the growing challenge of space junk and the solutions to manage and reduce it.

27. Noise Pollution from Aircraft: Understand the sources of noise from aircraft and the innovations aimed at quieter skies.

28. Sustainable Space Exploration: Learn about the practices ensuring that our exploration of space leaves no lasting harm.

Embarking on a research journey in aerospace engineering is like launching a personal mission to the stars. Not only will you learn much of the theory behind aerospace engineering, you will also ensure that your profile stands out to admissions officers by demonstrating your dedication, innovative thinking, and contribution to the field. Good luck with your research!

Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for the opportunity to do in-depth research on the above topics and more, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.

Image Source: Unsplash

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