New Space Surveillance Telescope Set to Locate Space Debris From Australia

First Posted: Dec 09, 2013 08:16 PM EST

As satellites become more common, they face growing risk of colliding with space debris and even each other.

The U.S. Department of Defense has thus made space situational awareness a top priority to maintain communication, Earth observation and other critical capabilities upon which military, civilian and commercial functions rely. Traditional telescope technology, however, has difficulty finding and tracking small objects--such as debris and satellites--across wide tracks of sky, especially at the increasingly crowded geosynchronous orbits roughly 22,000 miles above the Earth's surface.

To help overcome these challenges, DARPA has developed the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST). Through its unique combination of several novel technologies, the SST program seeks to enable much faster discovery and tracking of previously unseen, hard-to-find small objects in geosynchronous orbits. The SST will soon move from its current mountaintop location in New Mexico, where the system underwent operational testing and evaluation, to Australia, where it will provide key space situational awareness from the southern hemisphere--an area of the geosynchronous belt that is still largely unexplored.

From its new home, the Australian operators of the SST will feed the information the system captures into the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a U.S. Air Force system charged with cataloguing and observing space objects to identify potential near-term collisions with space assets. The SSN is a global network of radar and optical telescopes that provide data to spacefaring countries around the world. The SST will also continue to provide NASA and the scientific community with surveillance data on transient events such as supernovae, as well as potentially hazardous near-earth asteroids.

Started in 2002, the SST achieved first light and acquired its first images in February 2011. DARPA and the Air Force have conducted numerous successful demonstrations of the system from 2011 to 2013.

The SST offers unprecedented rapid search of small objects in space thanks to its innovative Mersenne-Schmidt design and its curved charge coupled device (CCD) imaging technology, the first of its kind. The combination also enables the SST to be much more compact than traditional ground-based telescopes of similar capability. The telescope's mount uses advanced servo-control technology, making the SST one of the quickest and most agile telescopes of its size ever built.

The SST's capabilities are equally impressive: It can search an area larger than the continental United States or Australia in seconds and survey the entire geosynchronous belt within its field of view multiple times in one night, an order of magnitude faster than traditional telescopes. Additionally, the SST is ten times more sensitive than current state-of-the-art systems, enabling it to find and track much smaller, dimmer and more transient objects than its predecessors can.

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Source: News release. ©2015 All rights reserved.

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