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U.S. Air Force takes control of the Space Surveillance Telescope ahead of Australian move

You frequently hear about the sale of a car or a house, but it is not too often you get word of the transfer of ownership of a million dollar telescope. That’s exactly what happened on October 18, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) handed over control of the 3.5-meter Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) to the U.S. Air Force Space Command. Now that it is under the direct supervision of the Air Force, the military branch plans to undertake the complex project of moving the telescope from its installation at White Sands New Mexico to its new home in Australia.

Operational since February 2011, the SST is capable of scanning large regions of the sky, with an affinity for detecting space debris and satellites at geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth. The SST is unique among existing deep space telescopes — it is outfitted with some of most steeply curved mirrors ever to be used in a powerful telescope and has lightning fast optics. This gives the telescope the ability to track faint objects and capture rapidly occurring events like a supernova. To record these observations, the SST comes equipped with a CCD-enhanced camera that can take thousands of images each night without distortion.

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It may have cutting edge optics and cameras, but the SST is best known for its wide field of view that allows it to scan large swaths of the sky in a short period. “The SST has moved space situational awareness from looking through a drinking straw to a windshield view, where we can see 10,000 objects the size of a softball at a time — any of which could put satellites at risk,” said DARPA program manager Lt. Col. Travis Blake.

The primary purpose of the SST is satellite monitoring and space debris tracking. The telescope scans the sky, recording the movement of debris and looking for potentially destructive collisions between spacecraft and space debris. Not only is the SST adept at tracking dangerous space debris, but it also is skilled at detecting asteroids. Since it went online in 2011, the telescope has observed millions of asteroids and has led to the discovery of 3,600 new ones. “SST has become the most prolific tool for asteroid observations in the world,” said Darpa’s SST telescope manager Lindsay Millard.

Currently, the SST is located at the White Sands Missle Range in New Mexico, but it won’t be staying there much longer. According to an agreement signed in 2013, the Air Force will move the telescope to Australia at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station. The Air Force will begin disassembling the telescope in the coming months and will oversee the transportation of the parts to Australia. Once it arrives in Australia, the telescope will be reassembled and ready for service in 2020.