Hitching a Ride in Space
By Piggybacking on Telecommunications Satellite, Researchers Hope for a Better View of "Local Bubble"
By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
The same type of satellite that allows you to call a friend while driving around town may soon enable campus researchers to probe the history of our corner of the universe.
The Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer (CHIPS) Mission, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will use a commercial telecommunications satellite to carry diagnostic equipment out of earth's atmosphere to scan the sky for extreme ultraviolet light.
The peer review panel that evaluated the CHIPS proposal challenged NASA to accept the project's unique plan to partner university research with commercial satellite communications, said astronomer Mark Hurwitz, principal investigator for CHIPS and a researcher at campus's Space Sciences Laboratory.
"This is not the conventional way of doing astronomy, nor of doing business," said Hurwitz.
The satellite, to be built by Maryland-based Final Analysis Inc., will be launched in mid- to late-2001, probably on a Russian COSMOS rocket. In the course of a year the CHIPS device will be able to survey the entire sky as the satellite orbits the earth.
One of the things that CHIPS is trying to determine is what exactly fills the nearest few hundred light years around the sun. There is some observational evidence, and a theoretical basis, to indicate that this region -- known as the "Local Bubble" because it appears to be almost empty of neutral gas -- is filled with tenuous, hot gas (plasma) at temperatures of about a million degrees Kelvin or a couple million degrees Fahrenheit.
Far above the interference of oxygen and other atmospheric elements, the CHIPS instruments will attempt to observe the Local Bubble in extreme ultraviolet light.
"We're looking at wavelengths about one-thirtieth the size of wavelengths to which the human eye is sensitive," said Hurwitz. "And the reason that we made CHIPS sensitive to these wavelengths, these very short ultraviolet wavelengths, is because these are the wavelengths that a million-degree plasma should emit most brightly."
The CHIPS mission seeks to discover at what wavelengths the majority of power radiated by the Local Bubble emerges, how the hot gas of the Local Bubble cools, what the thermal pressure of the hot gas is, the ionization history of the Local Bubble and applications of this knowledge to other hot plasmas in the universe.