DARPA wants ultimate zoom lens to gaze further into Earth orbit

DARPA GEO telescope would be up to 100X more powerful than current state of the art

sparse aperture imaging comparison

Imagery of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) (left) can achieve much higher resolution than images of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) (right), which appear only as  blobs. To improve space domain awareness, DARPA is looking to achieve high-resolution imaging of objects in GEO.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to build a ground-based telescope that would offer a radical way better look at objects in high space – known as geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) at 22,000 miles high –around our planet.

The military’s advanced research agency this week issued a Request For Information to begin the process of developing a telescope that basically would reproduce the current state of the art of that can clearly see objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the GEO realm. The telescope would enhance the nation’s ability to keep an eye on the military, civilian and commercial satellites, DARPA said.

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According to DARPA, “state-of-the-art imagery of objects in LEO, up to 2,000 km (1,200 miles) high, can achieve resolution of 1 pixel for every 10 cm today, providing relatively crisp details. But image resolution for objects in GEO, a favorite parking place for space assets roughly 36,000 km (22,000 miles) high, drops to just 1 pixel for every 2 meters, meaning many GEO satellites appear as little more than fuzzy blobs when viewed from Earth.”

DARPA says that building such a telescope will require radical technological advances because traditional or “monolithic” telescopes designed to provide high-resolution images of objects in GEO would be too physically and financially impractical to construct. For instance, achieving image resolution of 1 pixel to 10 cm for objects at GEO would require the equivalent of a primary imaging mirror 200 meters in diameter—longer than two football fields.

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“This ‘100x zoom lens’ would provide the first ground-based capability to quickly assess anomalies that happen to GEO satellites, such as improperly deployed antennas or partially unfurled solar panels. With that capability, satellite owners could identify and fix problems more effectively and increase their satellites’ operating lifetimes and performance,” said Lindsay Millard, DARPA program manager in a statement. “The image resolution this RFI envisions—down to a milli-arcsecond, or approximately one-3.6-millionth of a degree—would be up to 100 times more powerful than the current state of the art. Beyond helping us achieve our immediate needs on orbit, that improvement could significantly advance astronomy research, helping us learn about black holes and galaxy dynamics, as well as characterizing nearby exoplanets and detecting more-distant ones.”

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