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DARPA taps amateur astronomer community to help protect satellites

Defense researchers unveiled a program on Nov. 10 that would enlist private, amateur astronomers’ help in warding off disasters in space.

NASA estimates more than 500,000 pieces of hazardous space debris orbit the earth, threatening satellites that support peacekeeping and combat missions, including old spent rocket stages, defunct satellites and fragments from other spacecraft that are the result of erosion, explosion and collision, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

To help address the threat, DARPA said it has created SpaceView, a “neighborhood watch” space debris tracking project that provides amateur astronomers with more advanced space tracking capabilities.

Amateur astronomers, said the agency, had their first opportunity to sign up in person for the program at the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo in Tucson, November 10-11.

The vision behind the new SpaceView program, said, DARPA, is to provide more diverse data to the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN), that catalogues and observes space objects to identify potential near-term collisions.

SpaceView hopes to achieve a similar goal by engaging U.S. amateur astronomers by purchasing remote access to an already in-use telescope or by providing a telescope to selected astronomers, said DARPA. When a telescope that is provided by the program is not in use by the SpaceView program, DARPA will provide its use for astronomy and astrophotography, it said.

The SpaceView Web site said the initiative taps into amateur astronomers’ expertise end equipment base, by placing high-quality astronomical hardware and software at sites provided by that community.  State-of-the art hardware and relatively minor financial compensation may be provided in exchange for the shared telescope time, site security, and routine maintenance, the site said.  The approach allows significant reduction in deployment costs, compared to traditional optical space-surveillance facilities.   Equally important, remote observing and the availability of the local SpaceView member for troubleshooting eliminates the need for any paid employees at the site, further decreasing operational costs, it said.

“There is an untold amount of potential in the amateur astronomy community that we hope to use to broaden our situational awareness in space,” said Lt Col Travis Blake, USAF, DARPA program manager. “SpaceView should provide more diverse data from different geographic locations to ensure we have a robust understanding of the current and future state of our space assets.”

Participants will be selected based on geographic location and access to a permanent site for a telescope, among other criteria, said DARPA. In the first phase of the program, the program team will evaluate options for commercial off-the-shelf telescopes to determine which capabilities are best suited to the task.

SpaceView is part of a larger DARPA program, OrbitalOutlook, that looks to improve the accuracy and timeliness of the SSN, a worldwide network of 29 space surveillance sensors (radar and optical telescopes, both military and civilian) that are focused on observing space objects. GEOST, Inc., a research and development firm in Tucson, has been contracted to develop the SpaceView network. A similar effort, StellarView, will focus on engaging the academic community and is scheduled to kick-off in 2013, it said.


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