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DARPA History

History of DARPA and its accomplishments

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01/01/1978
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Hubble Telescope takes the clearest images of the universe and transmits these to Earth via its antennas. From 1978 to 1980, DARPA funded the design, fabrication, delivery and installation of two antenna booms for the Hubble Space Telescope to demonstrate the advantages of metal-matrix composites. Made of a graphite-fiber/aluminum matrix, these booms permit radio frequency conduction while simultaneously serving as structural supports. Deploying this dual-use composite material resulted in a 60% weight savings over an alternative boom- design candidate. Through this new material technology, DARPA met NASA’s design requirements for weight, stiffness, and dimensional stability. DARPA also contributed to the Hubble’s optical successes. The telescope incorporates algorithms and concepts pioneered by DARPA’s Directed Energy Program in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by which mirrors can be deliberately deformed to correct for wavefront imperfections.
01/01/1961

The Agency initiated the ARPA Midcourse Optical Station (AMOS) program in 1961 with the goal of developing an astronomical-quality observatory to obtain precise measurements and images of satellites, payloads, and other space objects re-entering the atmosphere from space. ARPA located the facility atop Mount Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.

By 1969, the quality and potential of AMOS had been demonstrated, and a second phase began to measure properties of re-entry bodies at the facility under the Advanced Ballistic Reentry System Project. In the late 1970s, successful space object measurements continued in the infrared and visible ranges, and laser illumination and ranging were initiated.

Other developments such as the compensated imaging program were tested successfully at AMOS. By 1984, the AMOS twin infrared telescopes had become a highly automated system and DARPA transferred it to the U.S. Air Force as one of the primary sensors of the Air Force Space Tracking System. In 1993, the Air Force renamed AMOS as the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site.

01/01/1970

From 1968 to 1972, ARPA funded a program with the Perkin Elmer Corporation to develop the technology for fabricating large, stable, low-weight mirrors from beryllium, a featherweight metal, for use in space applications. The early focus of the program was in developing and evaluating improved forms of beryllium. Perkin Elmer was successful in improving the thermal stability of beryllium surfaces tenfold, and developing materials-processing techniques (powder metallurgy, hot isostatic processing, pressureless sintering) for making it possible to fabricate large beryllium structures.

Further ARPA- funded efforts led to surface-polishing techniques to dramatically reduce scattering of infrared wavelengths, the successful development of thin-film coatings techniques, and a demonstration of the long-term stability of beryllium surfaces. DoD applications included 1) the all-beryllium, 15-inch aperture, long-wave infrared (IR) telescope system for the Midcourse Airborne Target Signature program run by what was then known as the Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency; 2) the fabrication of a lightweight, 40-inch, aspheric mirror for the U.S. Air Force; and 3) experimental near-net-shape production of a key component of the Trident 11 MK6 guidance system. NASA also applied the technology in the form of a 85-cm beryllium mirror assembly for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)'s IR Telescope Technology Testbed for eventual use in NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility (later renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope), which was launched in 2003 and as of 2018 was still in operation.

01/01/1960
One of the world’s earliest and most well-known spy satellite programs, the now declassified Corona photo-reconnaissance program was jointly funded by DARPA and the Central Intelligence Agency. Withstanding a series of initial failures, the program scored its first success in August 1960 when a canister of film dropped back through the atmosphere was successfully recovered, delivering a trove of intelligence photos taken over Soviet territory. The Corona program continued to acquire crucial Cold War intelligence until the mission ended in 1972.
01/01/1957
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union (USSR) launched the first satellite ever, triggering events that led to creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) on February 7, 1958. Although it was well known that both the USSR and the United States were working on satellites for the international scientific collaboration known as the International Geophysical Year (an 18-month “year” from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958 and designed to coincide with a peak phase of the solar cycle), many in the United States never fathomed that the USSR would be the first into space. “Now, somehow, in some way, the sky seemed almost alien,” then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson recalled feeling on that night, adding that he remembered “the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours.” Ever since its establishment on February 7, 1958, ARPA—which later added the D for defense at the front of its name—has been striving to keep that technological superiority in the hands of the United States.
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