Military Space Quarterly | Ball Seeks Adopters for DARPA-funded Optical Sensor Tech

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TAMPA, Fla. — Several U.S. government agencies, including NASA, are interested in a new lightweight technology that Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to collect real-time video and images from geosynchronous orbit, a company executive said.

Dave Kaufman, Ball Aerospace’s national defense vice president and general manager, said in an April 17 interview that the prototype Membrane Optic Imager Real-time Exploitation (MOIRE) is coming to the end of environmental testing and its formal demonstration period. 

Boulder, Colo.-based Ball is now in discussions with several U.S. government agencies to see which might be interested in funding further development of the technology.

“We’re in the process of talking to different transition partners,” Kaufman said. “We absolutely have interest. We’re pursuing several different avenues, including NASA.”

U.S. President Barack Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 said the Air Force was the expected transition partner.

DARPA has funded work to date on MOIRE, a ground-based demonstrator of a system that would operate in geosynchronous orbit 36,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. DARPA budget documents indicate that the program was funded at $15 million in 2011 but not in subsequent years.

In December, Ball announced it had 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 enable in-space optical apertures measuring 20 meters across, or more than three times the diameter of the reflector on NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope, the agency said. From geosynchronous orbit, a 20-meter telescope would be capable of imaging 40 percent of Earth’s surface, DARPA said in a Dec. 5 press release. 

Ball officials have said they see the technology having a wide range of applications for a variety of users. Kaufman said while there was no hard deadline to find a transition partner, Ball could identify a candidate user agency as early as the end of the year.

Potential applications are not limited to imaging, Kaufman said. NASA, for example, could use the technology for laser-optical communications, he said. 

“What we’ve been doing is explaining the experiment we’ve done, the technology we developed. Then, for different applications, the technology would be applied differently,” Kaufman said. “DARPA asked us to make a telescope. If NASA’s interested in laser-com applications, there would need to be some study about what we would need to do to the technology to bring it to that different application. That’s really where we’re going.”

The optics featured in the Ball demonstration consist of 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.

Thus far, “the performance has been very good,” Kaufman said. 

The MOIRE program is in its second and final phase, which is aimed at reducing the risk in developing a space-based version of the MOIRE technology. DARPA is planning an on-orbit demonstration of the technology through an Air Force Academy program.

 

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