The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will transfer to the Air Force a powerful Earth-based telescope capable of tracking thousands of objects in a wide expanse of space, the agency announced Oct. 18.
The space surveillance telescope will be sent to Australia, where U.S. Air Force Space Command will operate it jointly with the Australian Royal Air Force. It is currently located at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Officials wanted to monitor the geostationary belt from the southern hemisphere where it has few situational awareness assets, a statement said.
Its developers touted its revolutionary ability to look at the sky with a “windshield” sized view rather than the traditional soda straw view. It can track 10,000 objects at a time, some as small as a softball. It can scan an area the size of the continental United States within seconds.
Lindsay Millard, the telescope’s program manager at DARPA, said in a conference call that the program has already catalogued more objects than the Air Force had previously known about. “SST has an order of magnitude better performance than the existing space surveillance network optical sensor.”
It can survey up to a quarter of the geo-synchronous belt, some 23,000 miles above Earth, multiple times per night. Geosynchronous orbit is where spacecraft requiring fixed orbits are placed. The telescope can detect 10 times fainter objects at the orbit at 10 times the speed, a fact sheet said.
In addition, the telescope can detect asteroids and other space rocks hurtling near Earth for NASA.
“SST has also discovered 3,600 new asteroids, four comets, and 69 near-Earth objects, including four potentially hazardous asteroids that could possibly hit the Earth,” the fact sheet said. It had 7.2 million asteroid observations in 2015 and is now the most prolific telescope that can detect such objects, it added.
Tracking objects in near to high orbit has become a concern for the Air Force and other space agencies in recent years as space junk has proliferated along with an increase in the number of spacecraft. A recent Euroconsult study on the satellite construction market estimated that there will be to 9,000 new spacecraft launched over the next decade. That is opposed to some 1,450 deployed over the past decade.
The telescope features the most steeply curved primary telescope mirror ever made, the fact sheet said. This mirror, developed by L3, enables it to collect more light to see images across a wider field of view than any other space surveillance telescope. It also features the fastest shutter speeds of any telescope.
The program office with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Labs developed the first-ever curved charge-coupled device, or CCD, to provide clear imagery across its wide field of view because current digital cameras with flat CCDs are unable to record images from such highly curved mirrors without distortion.
“This was and is a huge technological advancement and perhaps the only place in the world to make this right now is the Lincoln Labs,” Millard said.
Millard said to have global coverage would require three more telescopes. It will be up to the Air Force to decide whether it will want full coverage, she added. Development of the telescope cost about $150 million. Shipping and setting up the telescope in Australia will take about three years, with initial operating capability expected in 2020.
Quelle: National Defense Industrial Association