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Chipsat pioneer named NASA’s chief technologist

peck.jpgMason Peck has been appointed chief technologist at NASA, the agency announced today. An aerospace engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Peck will assume the post in January and replace Bobby Braun, who in October returned to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Peck will lead an office that is responsible for developing the technologies that can be infused into future missions. Chronically underfunded in NASA’s perennial budget battles, the office is nonetheless counted on to push the agency in the direction of “faster, better, cheaper”. With Peck’s appointment, the mantra could become: faster, better, cheaper — and smaller.

At Cornell, he already has a small satellite project in the works called CUSat. Set to ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in late 2012, the pair of 25-kilogram satellites will separate and then monitor each other as a demonstration of an autonomous in-orbit inspection system.

But Peck’s interest in chipsats, and an experiment called Sprite, might be even more radical. These satellites pack all the communication and navigation capabilities they need onto a chip the size of a dime; for fuel, they can simply ride on the wave of the solar wind, like a miniature solar sail. Right now, Peck has a few Sprites being tested on the space station, but he foresees all sorts of future uses: clusters of chipsats, stationed at the Earth-Sun Lagrangian point, for monitoring dangerous outbursts of Solar wind; a benign chipsat cloud surrounding larger spacecraft to serve as inspectors and sentries; or an armada of chipsats, sent plunging into the atmosphere of an outer planet, in order to return basic physics and chemistry data.

Sound like science fiction? Perhaps it has something to do with Peck’s background; before becoming an engineer, he was studying for a PhD in English literature at the University of Chicago, and did a master’s thesis on Chaucer. Still an open question is who is to become Ed Weiler’s replacement as the associate administrator for science. According to one NASA official, that appointment is likely to come before Thanksgiving.

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