DARPA SpaceView program enlists us to track space debris, save a satellite today (video)

Space junk is an undeniable problem when there's over 500,000 dead satellites, spacecraft pieces and other human-made obstacles that could crash into active orbiting vehicles. DARPA is more than a little overwhelmed in trying to track all those hazards by itself, so it's recruiting amateur help through its new SpaceView program. The effort will buy time for non-professional astronomers on existing telescopes, or even supply hardware directly, to track the spaceborne debris without the sheer expense of growing an existing surveillance network. While that amounts to using hobbyists purely as volunteers, DARPA notes that the strategy could be a win-win for some when hardware donated for SpaceView could be used for regular astronomy in spare moments. The challenge is getting through the sign-up phase. While SpaceView is taking applications now, it's initially focusing on options for standard commercial telescopes and hand-picking those who have permanent access to hardware in the right locations -- there's no guarantee a backyard observatory will pass muster. Those who do clear the bar might sleep well knowing that satellites and rockets should be that much safer in the future.

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November 09, 2012

DARPA unveils SpaceView program at Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo to engage
amateur astronomers in helping to protect satellites

NASA estimates more than 500,000 pieces of hazardous space debris orbit the earth, threatening satellites that support peacekeeping and combat missions. These objects include spent rocket stages, defunct satellites and fragments from other spacecraft that are the result of erosion, explosion and collision. A collision between one of these small pieces of debris and a satellite could release more than 20,000 times the energy of a head-on automobile collision at 65 mph. To help address the threat, DARPA created SpaceView, a space debris tracking project that provides amateur astronomers with the means to make a difference. Amateur astronomers will have their first opportunity to sign up in person for the program at the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo in Tucson, November 10-11, 2012.

The vision behind the SpaceView program is to provide more diverse data to the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a U.S. Air Force program charged with cataloguing and observing space objects to identify potential near-term collisions. SpaceView hopes to achieve that 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. 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.

"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."

Interested astronomers may learn more about the program and sign up at Participants will be selected based on geographic location and access to a permanent site for a telescope, among other criteria. 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, which seeks 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, Arizona, 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.