U.S. telescope transfer to boost space surveillance capability

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is preparing to transfer its Space Surveillance Telescope to Australia as part of an effort to manage the growing amount of satellite traffic in geosynchronous orbit.

DARPA and the Air Force conducted several experiments with the telescope at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., as part of the Air Force's Space Surveillance Network. The Air Force network tracks space objects to identify possible collisions with satellites flying 22,000 miles above the Earth.

DARPA announced in December 2013 that the Defense Department has agreed to transfer the Space Surveillance Telescope to a naval communications station in Western Australia. From its new location, DARPA officials said it will provide a new space situational awareness capability from the southern hemisphere, an area of the geosynchronous belt that, according to DARPA, is largely unexplored.

The satellite's relocation will begin in 2014 and it is expected to resume operations in Australia sometime in 2016. "From its new location, it could greatly expand the capability of the United States, Australia and other nations to keep their space assets safe,” Lt. Col. Travis Blake, DARPA program manager, said in a statement.

 DARPA designed the telescope to rapidly search for small space objects using a new imaging technology based on curved charge-couple devices. The design greatly reduces the telescope's size while making it ten times more sensitive than the current state of the art. The telescope's mount also used advanced servo-control technology that allows the telescope to rapidly search for small objects.

Pamela Melroy, who helps oversee DARPA's space efforts, said the agency is also attempting to upgrade the Space Surveillance Network to handle data gathered by commercial and university telescopes. The Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSOC), which handles surveillance data gathering and analysis, is not currently organized to process data from "random sources," she noted.

The goal of the network upgrade is to ensure that satellite surveillance data of varying levels of sensitivity can be fused and ported to JSOC for analysis, Melroy said.

"The challenge was to figure out a way to take all that data and make sure that you have information assurance and that even poor quality data or rough data would not pollute your good data," Melroy said. "The goal of course is to get the cost per bit [of data] down."

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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