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DARPA’s ultrapowerful Space Surveillance Telescope scans the sky for asteroids

Space might have a whole lot of, well, empty space, but it’s also packed full of hurtling rocks, deceased satellites, old rocket boosters and other bits of detritus which wouldn’t exactly been desirable for one of our spacecraft to collide with.

To that end, this week the United States Department of Defense delivered a new, ultrapowerful telescope capable of keeping an eye on the galactic flotsam and jetsam floating around our galaxy. Called the Space Surveillance Telescope, the 3.5-meter, 90-ton telescope will allow for the monitoring of objects as small as softballs an astonishing 22,000 miles away.

In the words of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Space Surveillance Telescope’s strength is its ability to see, “something very far away over a very wide area.” Officials were quick to mention what an enormous step-change this represents; noting that it shifts us from being able to monitor, “only a few large objects at a time through the equivalent of a drinking straw to a windshield view with 10,000 objects at a time.”

This large field of view is the result of a steeply curved primary mirror in the telescope. It also boasts a DARPA-developed curved charge-coupled device detector which lets its camera take images from the telescope, without distorting them in the process. Thanks to a high speed shutter, the telescope will be able to be used for taking thousands of images per night.

It is hoped that the telescope will also be helpful to NASA in monitoring asteroids and other objects close to Earth, which could potentially collide with our planet.

Things aren’t quite ready to get up and running, however. Despite being formally transferred to the U.S. Air Force in a ceremony which took place at new Mexico’s White Sands Missile Base on Tuesday, the next phase of the project calls for the telescope to be moved to Australia, where it will be painstakingly reconstructed.

It will be housed in a custom-built dome at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, and will hopefully be operational by 2020.