DARPA aims for 100 times better space telescopes and Spy satellites

State-of-the-art imagery of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO), up to 2,000 km (1,200 miles) high, can achieve resolution of 1 pixel for every 10 cm today, providing relatively crisp details. But image resolution for objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), a favorite parking place for space assets roughly 36,000 km (22,000 miles) high, drops to just 1 pixel for every 2 meters, meaning many GEO satellites appear as little more than fuzzy blobs when viewed from Earth. Enabling LEO-quality images of objects in GEO would greatly enhance the nation’s ability to keep an eye on the military, civilian and commercial satellites on which society has come to depend, and to coordinate ground-based efforts to make repairs or correct malfunctions when they occur.

Achieving that goal will require radical technological advances because traditional or “monolithic” telescopes designed to provide high-resolution images of objects in GEO would be too physically and financially impractical to construct. For instance, achieving image resolution of 1 pixel to 10 cm for objects at GEO would require the equivalent of a primary imaging mirror 200 meters in diameter—longer than two football fields.

Imagery of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) (left) can achieve much higher resolution than images of objects in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) (right), which appear only as rough blobs. To improve space domain awareness, DARPA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking specific technological information and innovative ideas to achieve high-resolution imaging of objects in GEO.