On August 30, 2017, an online video was released showing shots of the worst nightmare of any satellite operator: an anomaly. It's the word space types use when they mean a bad thing, in particular one that they may not understand and may want to downplay.
In the video, a bullet – a satellite called Telkom-1 – hovers in the middle of the frame while stars in the background sweep across the screen. It shines quietly as the seconds pass. Then the satellite apparently spits out a cloud of debris without warning. It flickers, and then a slower cloud of pieces dissolves and floats away lazily.
"When this point of light starts dropping things left, right and down, it is clear that there was an event," says Gerard van Belle Astronomer at Lowell Observatory, Arizona, with another preferred euphemism in the aerospace industry aerospace. "There are many questions."
Hypothetically, there is a way to answer these questions for future events and anomalies, although it is too late for Telkom-1
That's a difficult problem. Many satellites spin in low earth orbit, and earthbound instruments can watch them pretty well. However, geosynchronous orbits can be more than 20 times farther, leaving the material out there to be both significantly smaller and significantly weaker.
If you need enough smaller areas for collaboration, you can get a detailed picture of a Geosynchronous satellite – that's something like reading the label "Sunkist" on a New York orange from a point in Arizona or that Recognition of a face on the moon. You could, for example, separate the solar modules of a satellite from the fuselage. Satellite owners could diagnose broken old satellites or find out why brand new satellites were not properly deployed.
These features are certainly of interest to aerospace companies. But they are also interested in the military and intelligence community, which may want to keep an eye on the orbit of other countries – especially now that the Pentagon thinks space is a "controversial domain".
The ghosts and spies are not wrong: we live in an age of anti-satellite testing, satellites that can track other satellites, targeted energy weapons, and cyber-interference. Meanwhile, people and societies are becoming increasingly dependent on a stable space infrastructure that simply works.
So far, however, such interferometers are not in operation. And the versions that are available are all more expensive than IARPA, the activity for Intelligence Advanced Research Projects. For this reason, a program called Amon-Hen was launched in 2017. Amon-Hen's goal is to develop "innovative, cost-effective" ground-based telescopes that can capture satellite images in distant orbits.
If you're a nerd, you can remember this Amon -Hen is the name of a special hill in the universe of JRR Tolkien. At this height, the ancients built the seat of sight. Sit in the said seat of sight – a chair that is permeated with special powers – and you can experience what goes on far, far away.
IARPA declined to comment on the program and its affiliates – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell and Applied Technology Associates rejected SpaceNews interviews or responded to requests for comments. However, they do not require a seat of vision to determine what the IARPA wants. Some of them are public information. The agency – the Darpa version of the intelligence community – wants to capture less than $ 25 million of interferometers, capture data on a given satellite in an hour or less, and convert all of the snapshots into instantly ready images the night before. IARPA estimates that the R & D program will take about 33 months. In the end, a team could have the opportunity to build a complete system.