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NASA sends UC Berkeley satellite into orbit

14 January 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

BERKELEY - A small UC Berkeley satellite was placed into polar orbit Sunday, Jan. 12, embarking on a year-long mission to study the hot bubble of gas that envelops our solar system and nearby stars. The Cosmic Hot Interstellar Spectrometer satellite (CHIPSat), originally scheduled for launch on Dec. 19, lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket at 4:45 p.m. PST Sunday.

"It was spectacular," said CHIPSat team leader Mark Hurwitz, a research astronomer at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, who watched it on a computer screen from the Vandenberg Mission Director's Center. The rocket emerged from the ground-hugging fog and haze into a clear sky, and 75 minutes after launch released its main payload, the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation satellite (ICESat). The piggybacking CHIPSat separated eight minutes later, at 6:08 p.m. PST. Initial contact with CHIPSat was made at about 98 minutes after launch at 6:23 p.m. PST as the spacecraft passed over UC Berkeley.

For now, Hurwitz and his team are waiting for the satellite to stop tumbling and settle into a stable attitude, essential for proper pointing and assuring that the solar panels get the best exposure to the sun. These preliminary steps are being handled at SpaceDev, Inc., which built the spacecraft housing UC Berkeley's instrument.

"We want to wait for the attitude control system to take control of the spacecraft reliably, and then we will start opening instrument apertures and turning on the detector — probably in two weeks or so," he said. They could be receiving data within a month. CHIPSat, though a tiny mission, is a milestone in satellite operations.

It is the first satellite controlled exclusively through internet protocols, according to SpaceDev program manager Jeff Janicik. Using standard internet protocols such as TCP/IP and FTP, controllers send commands to the spacecraft and receive data.

"Most missions have a custom-written format for efficiently sending and receiving blocks of data to download as much data as possible," Hurwitz said. "Our data rates are low enough that efficiency is not a constraint, so using prepackaged communications formats simplifies design of the whole system."

In the future, Hurwitz' team should be able to transmit commands to the spectrograph through SpaceDev and receive data the way most of us download files through the internet.

For more on the science behind CHIPSat, check out a previous story on the satellite.