Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyTagged Content List

Space Systems

Unmanned space systems, including vehicles, robotics and supporting technologies, as well as technologies for space situational awareness

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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.

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.

The capability of orbital telescopes to see wide swaths of the earth at a time has made them indispensable for key national security responsibilities such as weather forecasting, reconnaissance and disaster response. Even as telescope design has advanced, however, one aspect has remained constant since Galileo: using glass for lenses and mirrors, also known as optics. High-resolution imagery traditionally has required large-diameter glass mirrors, which are thick, heavy, difficult to make and expensive. As the need for higher-resolution orbital imagery expands, glass mirrors are fast approaching the point where they will be too large, heavy and costly for even the largest of today’s rockets to carry to orbit.
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Today—October 21, 2015—is famous in popular culture as the date 30 years in the future when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in their time-traveling DeLorean in the movie “Back to the Future Part II.” The film got some things right about 2015, including in-home videoconferencing and devices that recognize people by their voices and fingerprints. But it also predicted trunk-sized fusion reactors, hoverboards and flying cars—game-changing technologies that, despite the advances we’ve seen in so many fields over the past three decades, still exist only in our imaginations.