DARPA Solicits Ideas for Tracking Objects in Low Earth Orbit Blind Spot

by

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for new ways to track objects in what has long been a blind spot for the Pentagon’s Space Surveillance Network, according to a posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The broad agency announcement, posted Dec. 13, calls for white papers on ideas to track objects in low-inclination, low Earth orbit. The proposals would track objects greater than 10 centimeters across in orbits with an altitude of less than 1,000 kilometers and inclination of 20 degrees or less relative to the equator. 

Because most Space Surveillance Network sensors are located above 20 degrees north latitude, it is often difficult for the network to track objects in low-inclination orbits, said Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability.

The announcement says the primary goal of the program is for DARPA to quickly integrate new infrastructure to supplement the current space surveillance sensors.

“The amount of space debris that threatens important communications, weather monitoring, navigation services and imagery satellites is growing,” the announcement said. “As new space tracking challenges arise, the network’s ability to keep pace with the growing number of detections is hindered by lengthy acquisition timelines for bringing new sensors online.”

DARPA officials did not respond to a request for more details on the initiative.

The proposed program includes two phases, the first of which would include development and begin in the third quarter of 2014, and the second of which is a potential yearlong prototype demonstration that would begin in the fourth quarter of 2015 for data collection. 

The white papers are due Feb 25.

Meanwhile, DARPA is working with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., to build a lightweight, low-cost orbital telescope technologies to collect real-time video and images from geosynchronous orbit. 

Ball recently demonstrated a small-scale, ground-based prototype of a flexible, optical collection aperture that would launch in a folded position and unfurl once on orbit. DARPA envisions that the technology could one day lead to in-space optical apertures measuring 20 meters across, or more than three times the diameter of the James Webb Space Telescope, Ball said in a Dec. 6 press release.   

DARPA is funding the work under a program dubbed Membrane Optic Imager Real-time Exploitation (MOIRE), which the agency said could lead to the largest optical telescope ever deployed in space. From geosynchronous orbit, a 20-meter telescope based on MOIRE technology would be capable of imaging 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, DARPA said in a Dec. 5 press release. 

The optics in the Ball demonstration featured a new lightweight polymer membrane with the thickness of household plastic wrap, according to the DARPA press release. The polymer would replace glass mirrors, which are efficient but whose weight makes it difficult to use them for large space apertures, the release said.

The MOIRE program has nearly doubled the optical efficiency of the polymer membranes, the release said. The new membranes are about one-seventh the weight of a comparable glass system, the DARPA release said.

“The ground demonstration substantiates that this innovative technology could work on next generation space telescopes to greatly reduce their costs and enable larger telescopes,” Ball President Rob Strain said in a prepared statement. “This technology could apply to a wide-range of applications providing various forms of information to a multitude of users.”

The MOIRE program is in its second and final phase, one that is aimed at reducing the risks in new optics of space imaging systems. DARPA is planning an on-orbit demonstration of the MOIRE technologies through an Air Force Academy nanosatellite, which is expected to launch in 2015.

“Membrane optics could enable us to fit much larger, higher-resolution telescopes in smaller and lighter packages,” Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Gunn, a DARPA program manager, said in a release. “In that respect, we’re ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ that traditional materials impose on optics design. We’re hoping our research could also help greatly reduce overall costs and enable more timely deployment using smaller, less expensive launch vehicles.” 

Ball is seeking additional funding through both DARPA and other potential customers to continue developing the technology, said Mary Engola, a Ball spokeswoman.

 

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN