Good-bye Mr. CHIPS 

After years of struggle, Mark Hurwitz beat the odds and launched this humble satellite. So why did the folks at NASA eventually make him pull the plug?

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Lo and behold, this time Hurwitz hit pay dirt. A satellite that was scheduled to launch had run into technical problems, and CHIPSat could jump into its place. The whole satellite had to be redesigned; it had originally planned to orbit along the equator, and the Delta rocket would force them to use a polar orbit. But the team went to work and got it done.

On January 12, 2003, Hurwitz grabbed his parents, his sister, his partner, and his adopted son and flew down to Vandenberg Air Force Base. As his family watched from afar, Hurwitz sat in the control room, counting down.

The rocket lifted off, and CHIPSat was deployed in the upper atmosphere, ready to go to work. After almost six years of work — six years of hustling the NASA system and working through the perils of international trade politics — Hurwitz had his baby in the air. Hurwitz' team tested the spectrometer. They pointed it near the Earth, where they could see high-energy ultraviolet radiation scattering off of helium gas. They pointed it at the moon, where they could see sunlight reflecting off the surface at just the right wavelength. They pointed it out into deep space, where the bubble of hot interstellar gas wafted between the stars and hummed with a celestial spectrum of its own. And they saw ... nothing.

Nothing. No ultraviolet radiation, no high-energy emissions, not a thing. "When the instrument didn't detect anything, our first thought was, 'Oh my God, the instrument wasn't working,'" Hurwitz says. But they checked and double-checked the systems, and tried again. And again. For months, they scanned the universe, and never once found what they were looking for: "For some reason, this hot interstellar gas wasn't doing the job."

Still, CHIPSat told humanity something very important about the nature of interstellar material. Somehow, the hot interstellar gas wasn't nearly as bright as people thought. There could be all kinds of reasons for this: the gas is farther away than surmised; the temperature of the gas could be too hot or too cold; there could be neutral gas in the way absorbing the emissions; iron in the gas could change the radiation. But after all this work, Hurwitz couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. "So we learned a little bit about hot interstellar gas," he says. "But it's not as exciting, frankly, as detecting a spectrum and doing analysis of it."

By 2005, if they wanted their satellite to stay funded, Hurwitz' team had to think up new ways CHIPSat could be useful. When a few particularly bright comets zipped through a solar system, CHIPSat trained its spectrometer on them. When it incidentally turned toward the sun, satellite operators realized that if they aimed the spectrometer at just the right angle, and rotated it just so, they could get just enough sunlight to leak through to capture an astonishing solar ultraviolet spectrum. In addition, because the satellite's orbit gave it a chance to observe a sunset every ninety minutes, they could perform new research on sunlight behavior in the thin upper atmosphere.

NASA said that was pretty neat, but in the end it just wasn't enough to justify funding staff to continue collecting CHIPSat data. The money started to run out, and Hurwitz' team glumly realized that it would have to shut its satellite down. That was harder than you might imagine.

Because they're typically so expensive to build and launch, satellites are designed with overlapping redundancies to guarantee that the instrument will work throughout its lifetime. After turning off every instrument they could, Hurwitz' team sent a signal to CHIPSat, fooling it into thinking that its antenna is too hot to transmit. On April 11, CHIPSat finally went dark.

And that was the end of NASA's once-vaunted UNEX program. Departmental politics killed the scheme after only two funded programs, and the second project never got off the ground. The grand dream to launch a thousand cheap satellites, seeding the heavens with innovative orbital research instruments, began and ended with CHIPSat. Even now, with its dying solar battery, it circles the Earth, collecting data, waiting for someone on the ground to ask it what it has found.

But even after all the headaches and bathos, the CHIPSat team wouldn't trade its experience for anything. However unexpectedly, they advanced the cause of human knowledge and learned something no one ever knew before. That, says Marchant, was worth eleven years of his life. "I'd definitely do it over again," he says. "We proved all the scientists wrong. They were sitting there all smug thinking that they knew how the universe worked, and we came along and kicked the chair out from under them. Negative science isn't always sexy. You always want to see what you expect to see. But not seeing what you think is there is very important too."

These days, Marchant is working on NASA's "Stardust at Home" project, in which data on material observed near Jupiter is uploaded onto the Internet, and amateur astronomers are invited to review sections of the impossibly vast amount of data, looking for telltale signs that some of the material came from outside the solar system. He's also busy organizing and collating the CHIPSat data from his home in Virginia.

And Hurwitz? After eleven years of shepherding CHIPSat from a diagram to a satellite about to lift off from a launching pad, and then watching as his work went silent in the upper atmosphere, Hurwitz has put research science behind him. But he's not a lawyer either; after a few years doing patent litigation, he decided that wasn't for him. He's put aside the vistas of human knowledge and the gobs of legal fees — and become a high school teacher, training a new generation in physics at San Francisco's Lick-Wilmerding High.

But the allure of those years will never leave him, and one day, NASA might revive the cheap satellite program that Hurwitz dedicated eleven years to pioneering. Although his greatest moment will always be his work with the space shuttle, Hurwitz still remembers the moment his baby sat on the launch pad at Vandenberg, ready to prod at the universe. "During the launch itself, myself and some other engineers, we sat at the consoles with headsets," he recalls. "And before they launched the rocket, they asked, 'Is CHIPSat ready to launch?' And we said yes. We had our all-systems-go moment. It was an unbelievable thrill."

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