The United States needs satellites to function.  We rely on them for everything from communications to navigation, and that reliance isn’t limited to the civilian sphere.  As technology continues to advance, the need for constant communications and data transmission to anywhere on the globe grows alongside it, and the potential fallout from an attack on our satellite fleet increases in parallel.

Because there are over a thousand man-made satellites currently orbiting around our little blue dot, and more than half of them belong to the United States, simply keeping track of where they are has become a full-time job for the US Air Force.  When you add the tens or hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris sharing our small orbital neighborhood with those satellites, the need for continued tracking becomes an even larger imperative: we have to keep our satellites out-of-the-way of uncontrollable debris to ensure they don’t suffer any damage.  Because the United States currently relies on Russian rockets to get us into orbit, we don’t have the means by which to mount a repair mission like we once did with the Hubble.  A damaged satellite will likely simply become just another piece of debris instead.

With that in mind, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) created an Advanced Space Debris telescope, sometimes called a Space Surveillance Telescope, designed to use a wide-angle lens to track very faint objects in the sky such as our own satellites.  According to DARPA, this telescope, which they recently transferred to the United States Air Force to be relocated to the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, will make keeping track of our satellites and any potential threats posed by asteroids, comets or debris easier than ever.

“From a military perspective, any one of those objects could put satellites at risk,” Nina Armagno, the director of strategic plans, programs, requirements and analysis for Air Force Space Command, said. “That’s why this capability is so important to us in Air Force Space Command.”

But the real purpose of this telescope certainly isn’t just to keep track of debris.

Russia, China and Japan have all unveiled satellites in recent years that have the potential to be used as space-based weapons.  These satellites can maneuver in orbit to engage other satellites or space debris with protracting arms, or simply through controlled collision.  Although there are certainly non-military applications for such technology, the potential threat to the American digital infrastructure means the possibility of these devices being used as weapons cannot be discounted or ignored.

Both China and the United States have also demonstrated their ability to shoot down satellites using surface-based weaponry in recent years.  This means our satellite infrastructure faces threats from all sides, and until recently, we had very little ability to reliably assess what went wrong if one of our satellites were to suddenly fail to function.

Existing telescopes utilize a fairly narrow field of view, relying on the light that reaches the lens to help us see further into deep space than we can with the naked eye.  DARPA’s Space Debris Telescope works differently.  Instead, it relies on an extremely wide field of view by comparison, allowing for far dimmer objects to be picked up by the software used to analyze the imagery, and for visual tracking of near-earth objects like our satellites, large bits of debris, or even a foreign country’s satellite set to intercept one of our own.

According to the United States government, we do not currently have any offensive or defensive weapon systems in orbit.  That means that even if we believed one of our satellites would be attacked by a foreign power, we could do nothing to stop it from occurring.  This new telescope, however, offers us the ability to see what happens to our orbital equipment, meaning the United States could pursue punitive measures back here on the surface of the Earth without the offending nation being able to deny responsibility for the attack.

“SST (Space Surveillance Telescope) is and will be part of our space situational awareness system,” Armagno said in a Defense Department press release. “It allows us to discern our adversaries’ intent early on, and we have the strategic warning necessary to support stringent timelines required for us to respond to any kind of attack in space with confidence.

Of course, the government does have a number of secret space programs, such as the Air Force’s X-37b.  Although it’s public knowledge that the X-37 platform is an orbital drone similar in design to the space shuttle, just about everything else regarding the Air Force’s new toy remains a secret.  It seems likely that a platform like the X-37 could be outfitted with equipment intended to defend our satellites in low orbit, or to engage offending ones as they violate the space around our own.  It could also potentially be used to deploy equipment for those same purposes, which may be more likely depending on the orbital altitude the X-37 is capable of.

So although DARPA is touting their new satellite as a leap forward in our ability to track celestial bodies, don’t be fooled by the warm and fuzzy press releases.  This is a defensive weapon, intended to aid in protecting America’s most vulnerable, and necessary assets.


Image courtesy of the Department of Defense