WASHINGTON—The Air Force on Tuesday took control of a super-powerful space telescope developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but operational use won't begin until around 2020, after the system is moved to Australia, a DARPA official said.
The Space Surveillance Telescope, or SST, will be operated by Air Force Space Command in cooperation with the Royal Australian Air Force to track debris floating around space about 36,000 kilometers from Earth, said Lindsay Millard, DARPA's program manager.
"SST has about an order of magnitude better performance than the existing space surveillance network," the Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS), she told reporters in an Oct. 18 conference call.
Three technologies help contribute to that performance. The telescope incorporates the steepest curved primary telescope mirror — produced by L3 — ever made, which can collect light across a wider field of view. The first-ever "curved charge coupled device" for the camera provides clear imagery, and its fast shutter speed allows it to take a greater number of photos.
Previous space telescopes could only see a couple large objects from a very narrow field of view, the equivalent of a drinking straw, according to a DARPA fact sheet. The SST broadens that to a "windshield" view that can see 10,000 objects as small as a softball at the same time. It also can conduct surveillance quickly, with a scan of an area the size of the continental United States taking only seconds. It can survey its entire field of view, which amounts to about one quarter of the sky, several times per night.
After the telescope moves to Australia, it will observe a portion of the Southern Hemisphere, "where we just don’t have a lot of coverage," and provide data to the US Space Surveillance Network, Millard said. "If you really wanted to see the entire GEO [geostationary] belt, you would need about four of these placed around the world because satellites in GEO are at the same place at the same time over the earth."
Right now, there are no plans to purchase any more of the telescopes, but it would be up to the Air Force to decide whether or not additional units are needed in the future. DARPA spent about $150 million to develop the SST, its camera, and the dome of the telescope, as well as conduct testing and operations. A new telescope would likely be less expensive than that figure, Millard said.
NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Lab have already used SST to help track asteroids and other objects near the Earth, observing 2.2 million asteroids in 2014, 7.2 million in 2015, and a projected 10 million observed this year, according to Millard. The telescope has discovered 3,600 asteroids and 69 near-Earth objects.
The Air Force is responsible for moving the telescope from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in western Australia. The current plan is to pack the telescope in shipping containers and move it by ship to Australia. Because it will take some time to transport, reassemble the telescope and demonstrate the system to ensure it is properly functioning, initial operational capability isn’t planned until 2020, Millard said.