Current deep space search telescopes are unable to provide a full picture of objects such as microsatellites and space debris that threaten military satellites. Existing search telescopes have narrow fields of view and are incapable of detecting and tracking small objects at the deep space altitudes associated with geosynchronous orbits (roughly 22,000 miles high). Gaps in observational coverage hampers space situational awareness in this critical area of operational space.
Begun in 2002, the Space Surveillance Telescope program aims to overcome these limitations by enabling ground-based, broad-area search, detection and tracking of small objects in deep space for purposes such as space mission assurance and asteroid detection. SST should offer improvements in determining the orbits of newly discovered objects and provide rapid observations of transient events and improvements in orbital prediction.
The SST program has developed the technology for large, curved focal surface array sensors which enable an innovative Mersenne-Schmidt telescope design. This design allows for a short focal length, wide field of view and a compact optical train which allow for rapid step-and-settle motions to be executed. The SST mirrors are some of the steepest aspherical curvatures ever to be polished and allow the telescope to have the fastest optics of this aperture class. These features combine to provide orders of magnitude improvements in field of view and scanning for deep space surveillance.
The telescope was integrated in the Fall of 2010 and achieved first light in February 2011. Following this important program achievement, the system underwent an extensive check-out period and fine alignment phase that readied the system for a demonstration starting in Oct 2011.
The demonstration verified system performance and proved system functionality and autonomous operations for uncued search and detection of small objects. The demonstration period also included tests of the physical and optical systems verifying that mechanical and sensitivity metrics of the program were met. It also included demonstration of remote and autonomous operations.
SST completed its DARPA test and evaluation period in August 2012. DARPA will now assist AFSPC in undertaking a military utility assessment study of SST, by taking observations to demonstrate SST's performance over a full lunar cycle.
The telescope also has supported the astronomical community by collecting data on behalf of the Large Synoptic Space Telescope consortium to assist with their mission planning and data processing pipelines. SST is expected to provide initial detections of asteroids for follow-up by other more detailed scientific instruments. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory also is assessing the ability of SST to rapidly detect transient events such as supernovae and alert the astronomical community for follow-up with dedicated research telescopes.
Lt Col Travis Blake, USAF, Ph.D.firstname.lastname@example.org