Revolutionary telescope handed to Air Force Space Command
By Alethea Smock, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 01, 2016
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M -- In a quiet, dark desert location in the hills an hour south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, lies a bluff that is perfect for stargazing. There are no lights, traffic or other interference, creating the best view into deep space and making it a perfect site to develop a revolutionary new telescope.
The Space Surveillance Telescope brings many new capabilities to deep space observations, including an extra wide field-of-view and unrivaled speed. The needs of space situational awareness to keep better track of smaller objects, objects in geosynchronous orbit, and doing so with greater speed, demanded a new type of telescope be developed.
The telescope will eventually become a part of the Space Surveillance Network and be jointly operated by the 21st Space Wing and Royal Australian Air Force.
“What makes this a unique sensor is it will provide great southern hemisphere coverage,” said Col. Troy Endicott, 21st Operations Group commander. “The telescope has an incredibly wide field-of-view and the ability to discern dim objects, which is what we need for space situational awareness in geosynchronous orbit.”
The telescope achieved “first light” in 2011, and has been tracking and searching for objects in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles into space since then. The advanced capabilities allowed it to find and catalog 7.2 million asteroid observations in 2015 and is on track to catalog 10 million observations in 2016.
The SST can track up to 10,000 objects at a time, each as small as softball. Most telescopes today see a few objects at one time and is like seeing space through a “drinking straw” view. The movement of the system is smooth and very fast. The telescope, along with the observation dome, can move simultaneously and allows the system to discover and track objects with unmatched speed.
“This is one more sensor that will be a part of the space surveillance network,” said Endicott. “It will provide a picture of what is going on in the space domain, track objects we are aware of and allow us to identify any bad actors.”
The search area for the SST is about the size of the continental United States and it can survey the entire geosynchronous belt within its view in just a few seconds, multiple times in one evening.
“This is a bigger, younger brother to the Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System, also located in White Sands Missile Range and across the globe at Diego Garcia and Maui,” said Endicott.
The telescope was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and given to Air Force Space Command at a handover event held Oct. 18 at the facility.
The handover was a significant milestone in the program because it meant the SST was tested and ready to move to its new location in the southern hemisphere. In 2013, the U.S. Secretary of Defense and Australian Minister of Defense agreed to relocate the SST from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia. The site is expected to be at full operational capability sometime in 2020.
Australia offers a uniquely beneficial vantage point for SST operations and demonstration of its enhanced algorithms and camera. After the move, SST will be owned by the United States Air Force, but operated and maintained by RAAF. It will be a dedicated ground-based sensor in the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
“We are excited to partner with Australia with this and the new C-Band radar and deepen our partnerships with our allies,” said Endicott. “We won’t do the space mission alone and we need our partners to secure the space domain.”
The data will feed into the 18th Space Control Squadron, which is part of the 21st Space Wing located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
Cool facts about the SST:
- The innovative design enables compact construction of the telescope.
- The world’s first curved charge-coupled device in camera provides clear imagery across SST’s wide field-of-view.
- The world’s fastest telescope camera shutter can take thousands of photos in one night - up to a terabyte worth!
- The most steeply curved, large primary telescope mirror ever made collects more light to see images across a wider field of view than any other space surveillance telescope.
- The world’s fastest large astronomical mount makes SST the quickest and most nimble large telescope in the world.
- SST provides a unique combination of sensitivity and wide field-of-view and can detect 10 times fainter objects at GEO than traditional telescopes and 10 times the speed.
So far, the SST has discovered 3600 new asteroids, four comets and 69 near-Earth objects, including four potentially hazardous asteroids.