LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico — Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists are evaluating novel approaches to satellite situational awareness, including lowering the cost of space surveillance radars and optically monitoring the growing spread of orbital debris.

Work is underway here to enhance the ability to track millions of objects orbiting Earth and putting at risk commercial, civilian and government assets and information infrastructure.

Established in 1943, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is a national security science laboratory operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Tom Vestrand, an astrophysicist and director of LANL’s Center for Space Science and Exploration, said a network of “thinking telescopes” the lab developed to scan the night sky and respond rapidly to fleeting events, such as gamma-ray bursts, also tends to spot a lot of man-made satellites as well as “glints off of things that you may or may not know about.”

A key element of LANL’s Thinking Telescopes Technology Project is RAPTOR, Rapid Telescopes for Optical Response.

The robotic optical telescope array is situated on Fenton Hill, about 50 kilometers from Los Alamos in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains.

RAPTOR constantly observes and updates a database of 10 million astronomical objects, identifying anomalous objects within seconds.

“This project is more a software project than a hardware project,” Vestrand said.

A match of co-aligned telescopes, special software and the application of machine learning and interrogation is at the heart of RAPTOR with the equipment able to slue anywhere in the sky in seconds, he said.

“We’re on our third generation of building these systems … pushing to bigger and bigger telescopes to go deeper and deeper,” Vestrand said.


Ubiquitous surveillance

RAPTOR’s astronomical abilities are being exploited for space situational awareness, said Jeffrey Bloch, program manager for space situational awareness in LANL’s Threat Reduction Directorate.

“We want to look at the whole sky all the time and mine it for what’s going on,” Bloch said. Doing so pushes a whole new paradigm of “ubiquitous surveillance” to support other national needs, he said, be it improving spaceflight safety or dealing with menacing space debris.

Bloch said the U.S. national laboratories are involved in the security of the nation’s energy, transportation and information infrastructure.

”We see space as a subset of information security … because we use space to either collect or convey information for lots of purposes. Also, billions and billions of dollars of our economy go through links that have to do with space.”

The United States has spent billions of dollars on the national laboratories for a lot of raw capability, Bloch said, a capacity that also can be brought to bear in addressing satellite situational awareness requirements.

“A lot of the technology to maintain the [satellite] catalog is kind of dated,” said Mark Dunham, senior projects leader in LANL’s International, Space and Response Division Office. “We believe we have technology to bring to the table.”

As an example, Dunham said LANL is delving into reducing the cost of building radars used to augment orbital debris tracking. The technology being reviewed at the laboratory, he said, could enable 12-meter dishes at a cost of $6 million a copy that are as effective as much larger antennas now in use for space surveillance that cost about $150 million each.

Dunham also said there is increasing interest in making the satellite pull double duty as a space situational awareness sensor.  Far smarter spacecraft than those flying today, he said, could supply a synoptic picture of what is occurring within the space environment.

Over the decades, the International, Space and Response Division Office has flown more than 1,400 sensors on over 60 satellites, according to a LANL fact sheet.


Ultimate in debris clearance

In another arena, LANL experts are providing counsel on the impact high-altitude nuclear events would have on orbiting spacecraft, Bloch said. Such a blast would form a radiation belt where there is not one in low Earth orbit, zapping space systems with high-energy particles that could render them useless in a matter of hours.

Finding ways to neutralize those particles in time to protect space assets is drawing the attention of LANL researchers, Dunham said. “It’s essentially the ultimate in debris clearance.”

Dunham said that LANL has been in space for some 50 years, underscoring the lab’s long involvement in space-based devices to detect nuclear explosions in Earth’s atmosphere and in space, as well as using advanced technology to make instruments smaller, lighter, inexpensive and highly adaptable to different host spacecraft.

“Los Alamos is a space laboratory … and that’s usually not obvious to people. We supply a lot of government-furnished equipment … something on the order of $3 billion to $4 billion invested between the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Energy. So this is not a light enterprise,” Dunham said.

For Bloch, the lab’s prowess can be applied to space situational awareness “with a few changes of parameters and some vectoring,” he said. “There’s no need to invent from scratch to solve the problem. We’re saying that there may be other paradigms for approaching the problem with both our technology and methodologies.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...