IARPA Program Driving New Capabilities to Capture Clearer Images of Satellites Orbiting (Very) High Above Earth
The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is developing new scientific approaches to take high-definition-like pictures of geosynchronous satellites from the ground. The goal is to better account for the behavior and movement of these high orbiting objects in space.
Backdrop: In March 2018, IARPA established the Amon-Hen program (a name inspired by The Lord of the Rings) after policymakers identified an important intelligence need: developing improved ground-based capabilities for capturing imagery of geosynchronous satellites. GEO satellites track weather, support GPS technologies, and are used for commercial and military communications. The challenge is they are very hard to image from the ground – they orbit at the extremely high altitude of 36,000 km (22,500 miles). By comparison, the International Space Station orbits at an altitude of 410 km (256 miles).
To address this important need, IARPA and its research team are partnering with leading scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to build a hypertelescope – a single large telescope made up of seven smaller individual ones. While the effort entails extensive science and engineering, the hypertelescope essentially works by collecting the light from smaller telescopes to produce a single, clearer image. The hypertelescope was first theorized in the 1980s by French astronomer Antoine Émile Henry Labeyrie, and was considered just a theory until Amon-Hen.
What’s Next: The seven array telescopes and measurement equipment will be installed at the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer in Flagstaff, Arizona, this spring, and the first image collection of GEO objects is scheduled for the summer of 2021.
What They’re Saying: “This project demonstrates the potential high payoff of innovative research and development for the Intelligence Community. If successful, we will have the capability of building large telescopes at a fraction of the cost to serve intelligence and scientific priorities moving forward,” said Merrick DeWitt, IARPA Program Manager.
The Bottom Line: On behalf of the IC, IARPA and its government and industry partners are driving forward-leaning science and technology innovations. Together, they are solving difficult national security issues.