Air Force Acquires Spy Scope to Protect Satellites

The Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) via DARPA.The Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) via DARPA.

The Air Force has acquired a high-tech Space Surveillance Telescope, or SST, capable of speedily discovering and tracking previously unseen or hard-to-find small objects that could threaten satellites.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, on Tuesday transferred ownership of the telescope to Air Force Space Command during a ceremony at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The Space Surveillance Telescope, currently located in White Sands, will be moved to Australia and jointly operated by the Air Force and the Australian government, with the U.S. as its primary owner, according to an announcement from DARPA.

In 2013, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Australian Defence Minister David Johnston signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to move the telescope to the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia. At the time, Johnston had to rebut speculation that the telescope would be used to spy on other countries.

“Australia offers a uniquely beneficial vantage point for operational testing and demonstration of SST’s enhanced algorithms and camera,” according to DARPA’s SST page.

After the move, the telescope will be a dedicated sensor in the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.

“This optical telescope is poised to revolutionize space situational awareness and help prevent potential collisions with satellites or the Earth itself,” said Lindsay Millard, DARPA program manager for the telescope.

On a call with reporters Tuesday, Millard said telescope will reach initial operating capability in Australia in 2020, once it has been shipped and reassembled, and numerous demonstration tests are run.

The Space Surveillance Telescope will enhance space situational awareness. For example, it “can search an area larger than the continental United States in seconds and survey the entire geosynchronous belt within its field of view — one quarter of the sky — multiple times in one night,” DARPA said. Millard said the telescope will track objects nearly 25,000 miles above the Earth, or roughly the height of the geosynchronous orbit. SST is focused on tracking and identifying debris in this range.

The Space Surveillance Telescope has many technological firsts, the agency said. It uses the most steeply curved primary telescope mirror ever made, enabling it to collect more light to see images across a wider field of view than any other space surveillance telescope. The mirror was made by L-3 Communications; Harris Corporation also partnered on the project to provide logistics, Millard said.

“To hold this mirror, SST uses an innovative Mersenne-Schmidt design, which enables much more compact construction than traditional telescopes,” the DARPA release states. A Mersenne-Schmidt design uses powered primary, secondary and tertiary mirrors, according to this AmosTech technical paper.

The telescope’s camera includes its own noteworthy inventions, including the first-ever curved charge coupled device, or CCD, to provide clear imagery across its wide field of view. Current digital cameras with flat CCDs are unable to record images from such highly curved mirrors without distortion, DARPA said.

And, because it has the fastest shutter speed in the world, the telescope’s camera “is able to take thousands of pictures a night.”

“With 2.2 million asteroid observations in 2014, 7.2 million in 2015, and hopes for 10 million in 2016, SST has become the most prolific tool for asteroid observation in the world. SST has also discovered 3,600 new asteroids and 69 near-Earth objects, including four that carry a risk of possibly hitting the Earth,” the release said.

Millard could not say how much earlier the telescope will be able to track objects before they enter Earth’s geostationary orbit, or the orbit following the planet’s rotation.

Millard said NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a system to apply the telescope’s data to track and map how much debris exists in space.

About the Author

Oriana Pawlyk
Oriana Pawlyk is a reporter for Military.com. She can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.