The CHIPSAT mission

A project developed in partnership between  NASA, the commercial company SPACEDEV and the university of California

edited by Luisa Spairani

The projects of NASA are evolving towards a new kind of relationship with commercial companies and universities and there are interesting implications:

In this scenario a new technological market can be open; it should be based on private companies that, in conjunction with research centers,  can rapidly boost trade for   space  missions.

In December  '99  a new mission called CHIPSat has been announced as a result of this new partnership between NASA, industry and university.

CHIPSat is the first mission of NASA's low-cost University-Class Explorer (UNEX ) series to be approved for implementation-phase (Phase B) development. It will cost approximately $12M from NASA to implement the mission. It will be launched for its one-year mission as a secondary "piggyback" payload on a Boeing Delta 2 rocket in early 2002. This launch date is contingent on several factors, including a continuation of the strong support shown to the project by NASA. The approximately 85 kg microspacecraft will carry one science instrument, the Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer, or CHIPS. Dr. Mark Hurwitz at the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) is the Principal Investigator for CHIPS as well as the overall CHIPSat Mission Manager.

CHIPSat integration is planned to start September 2000. Once assembled and functionally tested there, the microspacecraft will be shipped to environmental test facilities (vibration, thermal-vacuum) at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan Utah, and from there to the Delta launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida. Following launch in early 2002, SpaceDev will conduct initial in-orbit checkout and mission operations.

The CHIPS objective is to find an answer to the following problem:
what type of matter floats in the vast emptiness between the stars? This question, simple to ask, defies a simple answer.

The constant stream of particles and radiation from our own sun strongly influences nearby space, from which even our most distant interplanetary space probes have not yet escaped. Data from these probes and other sources reveal that the region immediately outside our solar system - say, within the nearest few light-years - is filled with matter that is only partly ionized, and at a temperature comparable to that of the surface of our sun. But beyond this "local cloud" lies a much larger region described by a prominent astronomer as a "region of bizarre emptiness" but known by most as simply the "local bubble."

From the available observations, this void - extending for about 150 to 300 light-years - appears to be filled with a much hotter plasma, a sea of electrons and protons with a temperature close to one million degrees. But many key properties of the bubble remain unknown. What is its detailed temperature? What is its density? What is its age? How does this hot gas cool or radiate? Is it composed of the same mix of elements as, for example, the sun, or is its composition influenced by the explosion of nearby supernovae that may have created the bubble in the first place? These questions are of interest not only because the solar system is essentially immersed in the bubble, but because such regions may fill the majority of all interstellar space in our Milky Way Galaxy.

The CHIPS instrument is designed to diagnose the physical properties of the plasma in the local bubble. It will carry out for the first time all-sky, high-resolution spectroscopy of the plasma's diffuse glow using sensitive detectors tailored to observe in a poorly explored ultraviolet wavelength band. CHIPS data will help scientists determine the properties of the plasma, and thus should be relevant to and useful in a wide variety of galactic and extragalactic astrophysical environments and investigations.

Without any sensational announcement it is being gone towards a way to work integrated with the industry and the university. If everyone knows the University of California,   it could worth to provide a profile of the SpaceDev company. Established in 1997, SpaceDev ( is the world's first commercial space exploration and development company.
SpaceDev's corporate offices, its wholly owned subsidiary Integrated Space Systems (ISS,, and the company's Space Missions Division are located in Poway. The company's other wholly owned subsidiary, Space Innovations
Limited (SIL,, is located in Newbury, England.  Besides Earth-orbiting missions such as CHIPSat, SpaceDev is offering lunar orbiters, Mars probe carriers and derivatives of its Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP) mission for sale as
turnkey commercial products. Such commercial deep-space missions are a first for the industry. 

It is desiderable  a new boost to the project of spaces missions in this direction and we hope that also in Europe such kind of  integration between industry, universities and space agencies will happen.

Please, notify to this e-zine any analogous examples of cooperation between industry, universities and space agencies that are in progress in Europe. Mail to: Luisa Spairani

TDF 1/2000-01

Torna alla Home Page