Chipping In: Revolutionizing Space from Down Under


This past March, Auckland, New Zealand experienced the Chipping In conference. It is an international workshop which addressed the current progress of gram-scale spacecraft for their commercial and scientific use in deep space.

It does so by providing a platform for engineers, software developers, space field professionals, and experts whom are currently working on ChipSats. It provides a strong platform for local University of Auckland students to learn about ChipSats. Some of the questions about ChipSats that were to be addressed at the conference were:

What is the state of the art? Where are the opportunities and challenges with this gram-scale spacecraft? Can ChipSats be useful for scientific research? How can we track them in increasingly congested and highly-regulated orbits? What are the regulatory and technical challenges that must be met when responsibly deploying ChipSats? How can we build this capability in the Southern Hemisphere?

On top of various technical sessions, a multi-day collaborative hackathon was held for students and many other attendants. It was the organizer’s intent for every attendee to leave with hands-on experience and with a strong comprehension of these revolutionary spacecraft.

The following is a transcript of the questions that were asked to ISU’s representative in the conference: Salvatore Vivenzio. He is a Space Studies Major with a background in Aerospace Engineering.

Per your own words, what was the Chipping In conference and what was its purpose?

The Chipping In conference was an event that went on from 16 - 17 of March 2019, which was put together by Breakthrough Initiatives (a Science-based program) and the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Its purpose was to raise awareness within the University and its surrounding community about Space studies and ChipSats technology. It provides a platform for experts and space enthusiasts who are curious about ChipSats to exchange their knowledge of the subject matter and information.

Tell me about the participants that you interacted with?

Half of the people that made up the event’s audience were local university students. Most were engineering students but overall there was attendants of many diverse educational fields. The other half of the attendees were presenters, with a technical, scientific or legal background, whom were currently working on various ChipSats projects.

Tell us about some of the individuals?

One of the various amazing people. There was scientist from around the globe and Space policy experts. Some of the individuals that stood out were Zack Manchester, he was the individual responsible for KickSat 1 and KickSat 2 missions. Also, James Schalkwyk who is the Program Manager for Breakthrough Initiatives along with Peter Kluper whom is Breakthrough Initiatives’ Chief Engineer. Another person that I got spend time with was Lisa Kaltenegger. She is the Director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University and Associate Professor in Astronomy.

Tell me how the conference evolved throughout the course of the two days?

Actually, the conference really began for me the day prior to its first day. We were invited to take part on a sailing trip where we would have the opportunity to introduce ourselves to one another and to share our expectations about the event. It was a great way to break the ice so we can get straight to business when the conference officially began the day after.

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 From left to right: James Schalkwyk, Lisa Kaltenegger, Jack Madden, Salvatore Vivenzio

On the first official day of the conference, the morning was received with the various presentations put together by ChipSats professionals. The presentations were broken down into three primary sessions. They were the engineering session, scientific session, and the policy session. The topics being; The State of Art-ChipSats, Spaceflight Mechanics and Systems Engineering, Gravimetry with ChipSats, Software and Comms, Potential ChipSats missions, Australian Space Agency, New Zealand Policy Goals / Challenges.

I heard that you gave a presentation, can you share a bit about it with us?

My (Salvatore) presentation was about the Feasibility Analysis and Preliminary Design of ChipSats Entry for In-situ Investigation of the Venusian Atmosphere. It was concerning the feasibility of using ChipSats for planetary atmospheric entry missions, in particular to search for life in Venus' atmosphere. I actually got to meet another student (Jack Madden; PhD student at Cornell University) who was working on a similar project as I but he was engaging it on from a scientific perspective compared to my approach as an engineering student.

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Salvatore at Chipping In

What followed the presentations?

During the Saturday evening, there was a hackathon which was a very engaging workshop and lasted until 11pm that evening. It was led by Zack Manchester, assistant professor at Stanford University. Participants had to find out how to develop a mission with different aims, for example how to enable communication between two ChipSats. Basically, they had to deliver a ChipSats Mission in two days. Zack provided the hardware like: spectrometer, antenna, whatever they needed to build a proper ChipSats.

Interesting, tell us about the second day?

We began with a keynote speaker (Lisa Kaltenegger, the director of the Carl Sagan Institute and associate professor in astronomy). The presentation was about how to Model an Exoplanet and about how to search for life outside of our solar system. After Lisa’s speaking block the conference resumed where the hardware hackathons left off. I then got the opportunity to participate with the other presenters in an unconference. We covered two main topics: ChipSats policy issues and ChipSats mission design.

How did the day close out?

Sunday started with the presentation of the outcome of the unconference and ended with a presentation put together by the students who were designing ChipSats over the previous 48 hours. Basically, at the end, the students joined the previous presenters in order to share their outcome and presented their work group by group.

Do you have any closing statements?

Yes, it was a very unique opportunity to meet with space curious people. Being able to have deep conversations with people whom were able to generate new ideas after their attendance. It was nice to meet such amazing people.

Salvatore is a member of MSS19 at ISU in Strasbourg, France. He was selected to represent his university cohort and Initiatives for Interstellar Studies (I4IS) at the event. His trip was funded by Breakthrough Initiatives as part of their support for academic ChipSats research.

This interview was conducted several weeks after the event concluded by Farnoosh Sheini who is also a member of MSS19 at ISU. Farnoosh also has worked on various ChipSats projects this academic year.  

Pictures Credit: ISU