On August 30, 2017, a video appeared online showing footage of every satellite operator's worst nightmare: an anomaly. These are the types of word spaces they use when they mean a bad thing, especially one that they may not understand and may want to downplay.
In the video orb – a satellite known as Telkom-1 – moves in the center of the frame as the stars flit across the background screen. It lights up silently as the seconds tick. Then, at first glance, without warning, the satellite twists a cloud of debris. It blazes, and then a slower build-up of pieces separates and swims lazily.
"When this point of light begins to throw things from left, right, bottom, it becomes clear that there has been an event," says Gerard van Bell, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, using another favorite aerospace euphemism. "There are many questions."
Hypothetically, there is a way to answer these questions about future events and anomalies, although it is already too late for Telkom-1
This is a difficult problem. Very low satellites rotate in low Earth orbit, and Earth-related instruments can keep a pretty good eye on them. But geosynchronous orbits can be more than 20 times farther away, which makes things look much smaller and significantly darker.
Forcing smaller enough bands to work together, the thinking goes on and you can take a detailed picture of a geosynchronous satellite – which is something like being able to read the Sunkist label in New York orange from a location in Arizona or you can see someone's face on the moon. For example, you can separate the shoulders of the solar panel from the satellite from its torso, for example. Satellite owners can diagnose broken old satellites or find out why brand new satellites are not positioned correctly.
These capabilities are of interest to space companies, for sure. But they are also interested in the military and intelligence communities, who may want to keep an eye on the orbits of other nations – especially now that the Pentagon is hot with the idea that space is a "contested area."
Scammers and spies make no mistake: we live in an age of anti-satellite testing, satellites that can lurk other satellites, targeted energy weapons, cyber messing. In the meantime, humans and societies are becoming increasingly dependent on a robust space infrastructure that just works.
However, there are no such interferometers so far. And the existing versions are more expensive than IARPA, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. That's why in 2017 she launched a program called Amon-Hen. Amon-Hen aims to develop "groundbreaking, low-cost" telescopes on earth that can take those high-numbed satellite imagery of long-range orbits.
If you are a fool, you may recall that Amon is the name of a special hill in the universe of JRR Tolkien. On this peak, the ancients built the Seat of Seeing. Sit in the aforementioned observation spot – a chair full of special powers – and you can witness what is happening far, far away.
IARPA declined to comment on the program and its affiliates – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell and Associated Technology Associates, according to SpaceNews – either did not respond to the interviews or did not respond to requests for comment. However, you do not need a monitoring site to determine what IARPA wants, some of which is public information. The agency, Darpa's version of the intelligence community, wants interferometers that cost less than $ 25 million, can collect satellite data for an hour or less, and can convert all images from one night into ready-to-install images before next night, IARPA predicts that the R&D program will last about 33 months, at the end of which the team may be able to actually build a complete system.