On August 30, 2017, a video appeared online showing footage of every satellite operator’s worst nightmare: an anomaly. It’s the word space types use when they mean a bad thing, especially one they perhaps don’t understand and may want to downplay.
In the video, an orb—a satellite known as Telkom-1—hovers in the center of the frame while stars streak across the screen in the background. It glows quietly as the seconds tick by. Then, seemingly without warning, the satellite spews a cloud of debris. It flares, and then a slower plume of pieces detaches and floats lazily away.
“When that point of light starts shedding things to the left, right, bottom, it’s clear it had an event,” says Gerard van Belle, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, using another favorite aerospace euphemism. “There’s a lot of questions.”
Hypothetically, there’s a way to answer those questions for future events and anomalies, although it’s too late for Telkom-1 (RIP). All you need is an instrument called an optical interferometer: a set of smaller telescopes that, when working together, can produce detailed portraits of the dim satellites in geosynchronous orbit, more than 20,000 miles above Earth’s surface. The telescopes act like one instrument, and could hypothetically make the fuzzy point of light in the Telkom-1 video look like a real satellite, rather than a sphere.
That’s a hard problem. Lots of satellites spin around in low Earth orbit, and Earth-bound instruments can keep a pretty good eye on them. But geosynchronous orbits can be more than 20 times farther away, making the stuff out there look both significantly smaller and significantly dimmer.
Force enough smaller ‘scopes to work together, the thinking goes, and you can take a detailed picture of a geosynchronous satellite—which is kind of like being able to read the “Sunkist” label on a New York orange from a spot in Arizona, or being able to make out someone’s face on the moon. You’d be able to separate a satellite’s solar-panel arms from its torso, for instance. Satellite owners could diagnose broken old satellites or figure out why brand-new ones didn’t deploy correctly.
Those capabilities interest space companies, sure. But they also interest the military and intelligence communities, who would perhaps like to keep eagle eyes on other countries’ orbital actions—especially now that the Pentagon is hot on the idea that space is a “contested domain.”
The spooks and spies are not wrong: We live in an age of anti-satellite tests, satellites that can stalk other satellites, directed energy weapons, cyber meddling. Meanwhile, people and societies are growing more dependent on a stable space infrastructure that simply works.
So far, though, no such interferometers are up and running. And the versions that do exist are all more expensive than IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, would like. That’s why in 2017 it launched a program called Amon-Hen. Amon-Hen aims to develop “innovative, low-cost” telescopes on the ground that can take those high-(ish)-def pictures of satellites in distant orbits.
If you’re a nerd, you may recall that Amon-Hen is the name of a special hill in J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe. On this peak, ancients built the Seat of Seeing. Sit in said Seat of Seeing—a chair imbued with special powers—and you can witness what’s going on far, far away.
IARPA declined to provide any comments on the program, and the companies that are part of it—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell, and Applied Technology Associates, according to SpaceNews—either said no to interviews or didn’t respond to requests for comment. Still, you don’t need a Seat of Seeing to determine what IARPA wants, some of which is public information. The agency—the intelligence community’s version of Darpa—wants interferometers that cost less than $25 million, can collect data on a given satellite in an hour or less, and can convert all the snaps from an evening into Insta-ready pictures before the following night. IARPA estimates the R&D program will last around 33 months, at the end of which a team might get the opportunity to actually build a full system.
Will that work out? Maybe not. Just ask Darpa, which ran a similar program called Galileo in 2012. The agency scrapped it halfway through.
But in the land of astronomy—where they build telescopes for a living—a few scientists have steadily been working on this problem.
Take the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer, set in New Mexico. Eventually, it will have 10 telescopes, each 1.4 meters across. They’ll spread in a three-armed Y, with limbs that can stretch or shrink to change the zoom. In its closest-up view, the interferometer could see geosynchronous satellite parts a quarter of a meter wide. The first telescope caught its first light as part of the array last year; its second will pop online in 2020; and the third will join in 2021. Soon after, the interferometer will start work.
The Magdalena Ridge project is a joint effort between the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and the Air Force Research Lab. Taking geosynchronous glamour shots is becoming ever more critical, says Michelle Creech-Eakman, a physicist at New Mexico Tech and the interferometer’s project scientist. It’s crowded up there, filled not just with satellites old and new but also with space junk, like those bits that Telkom-1 vomited out, and other dead, useless instruments. “People don’t always clean up when they’re done with their toys,” she says. In the event of a crash, an interferometer could potentially do a checkup.
None of that, though, is really why Creech-Eakman got into the interferometer business. She’s a stellar astronomer, interested in the suns of other solar systems, much farther away than even the most intrepid satellites. With an interferometer of Magdalena Ridge’s scope, scientists like her can start to see details of stars, which are normally just points of light. The existing instruments have already changed astronomers’ fundamental assumptions about stars—for example, that they’re spheres, which they’re not.
With these instruments, astronomers can also see sunspots in other solar systems, and compare those stars’ nifty cycling polka dots to those on our own sun. Interferometers, in addition, show stars spitting out material in real time, and scientists can investigate how that shedding changes as they age. Are they constantly sloughing themselves off, or do they puff plasma off in clumps?
Not too far away, outside of Flagstaff, another project, this one called the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer, also stares at stars and notes their ultra-precise positions in space, an activity of interest because the heavens still form the backbone of earthly navigation. The observatory is upgrading to meter-sized telescopes, and while it hasn’t yet snapped IARPA-quality images, it did once lay eyes on a geosynchronous DirecTV satellite. Way back in 2008 and 2009, it observed the sitcom-beamer during “glint season,” when the sun reflects off the solar panels juuuuust right and brightens the satellite up.
That’s a far cry from geosynchronous portrait mode, but it’s a start. And in the opinion of Lowell’s van Belle, the military and intelligence communities would do well not to focus so tightly on the satellites far, far away. After all, the world runs on navigation satellites, whose signals don’t just tell you how to get to Pizza Hut but also feed into banking systems, the electric grid, TV, radio, weather reporting, cell service, and seismic monitoring. American GPS satellites, the Chinese BeiDou constellation, Russia’s GLONASS, and Europe’s Galileo all have satellites circling below geosynchronous orbit and are all vulnerable to attack or malfunction. “They’re missing half the interesting stuff,” says van Belle. If we were going to make a Lord of the Rings joke here, we could say they were missing Middle Earth orbit.
Updated 8/29/2019, 12:30 pm ET: The story was revised to correct the caption on the image of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer.
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