Lockheed Martin has its eyes on the US Air Force Space Fence program, above, while also working on a mobile space situational awareness capability based on telescopes deployed on rails. (Lockheed Martin)
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — When the contract for the US Air Force’s space fence program is finally awarded in the coming weeks, Lockheed Martin hopes to cash in big. But Lockheed is also developing a program known as SPOT (Space Object Tracking) that it believes could be the cornerstone of a new ground-based space situational awareness capability.
The SPOT program, located in Santa Cruz, California, takes three 1-meter optical telescopes and sets them on rails similar to train tracks. By moving the telescopes around, SPOT can capture numerous images of an item in the sky. Filtered through the company’s proprietary software, SPOT can assemble a clear image of items, as small as 50 centimeters, flying through geosynchronous orbit.
“Each telescope is looking at a different angle, so you have to adjust for that angle if you want to get an image constructed out of all three telescopes,” said Ken Washington, vice president for Lockheed’s STAR Lab. “By coupling them with fiber it allows you to work with images from all three telescopes with the precision required.”
Washington described the program as providing a new capability for space situational awareness, even though there is very little new hardware involved.
“The hard part is the software and the architecture,” he said. “The telescopes themselves are pretty straightforward. The two pieces we’ve brought to our SPOT facility that are new are the delay-line, fiber coupling of the telescopes, and then the software to do the imagery construction.”
Washington also highlighted the fact that SPOT can be operated remotely, saving the expense of sending someone to a high mountain in order to adjust the system.
Another major cost saver? Nothing has to be launched into space, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
SPOT is already going through some activities on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program known as Galileo. That program seeks to “bridge the precision fiber optic controls and long-baseline astronomical interferometry technical communities to enable imaging of objects in GEO faster than is possible today,” according to an agency factsheet.
SPOT could hypothetically become part of a network of telescopes at strategic locations around the globe — Washington mentioned potentially putting one in the Southern hemisphere and another in Asia — that could add capabilities to the ground-based system. The goal, Washington said, would be to see objects down to 10 centimeters in size.
“One of the concepts is to have a global network of ground based telescopes, something the intel community is conceiving of called the ‘next-gen surveillance network,’ ” Washington said.
Lockheed is also competing on the Air Force Research Lab’s RASTER program, which Washington says will be awarded in October. The winner of the RASTER competition will take over management of the Air Force’s Starfire Optical Range, at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and the Maui Space Surveillance System.
Lockheed is also slated to join the University of Arizona in taking over operations on the United Kingdom IR telescope, which is now owned by the University of Hawaii. Although that program won't have military application, the company plans to use it to enhance space situational awareness by studying space debris and tracking asteroids. ■