Space Force telescope will hunt foreign spacecraft, asteroids and comets too

white telescope in a warehouse
Space Force's Space Surveillance Telescope. (Image credit: Space Force)

A relocated military telescope is ready to scan the skies.

The U.S. Space Force says its Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) is operational in Australia, providing a new perspective on the sky to look for foreign spacecraft, space debris and astronomical objects of interest.

The telescope — which saw first light in 2011 and underwent years of testing — is now ready for work in the southern hemisphere, where it will join the global Space Surveillance Network for the United States and its allies, Space Force officials said in a Sept. 30 statement (opens in new tab)

Related: US Space Force establishes new unit to track 'threats in orbit'

While its primary mission is looking for foreign spacecraft (or space debris) orbiting the Earth, the telescope can be repurposed for other astronomical observations. SST can track "faint objects in deep space to help predict and avoid potential collisions, as well as detect asteroids and comets," according to the Space Force statement. 

The telescope was tested at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico between 2011 and 2017 with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. After being handed over to the U.S. Air Force in 2017, the military decided to redeploy the telescope to Australia in 2020, according to Space News.

SST is retasking at a time when space debris is becoming a pressing policy problem for the United States. Commercial providers such as SpaceX are sending thousands of Starlink satellites into orbit, increasing the chances for potential collisions. (SpaceX has argued Starlink satellites can dodge in case of trouble.)

Adding to the satellite swarm issue, a Russian anti-satellite test (ASAT) in November 2021 created a large plume of debris that haunted the orbit of the International Space Station for a while. Much of the swarm is still out there, and has also come close to Starlink satellites in their orbit.

Space Force joins NASA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Vice President Kamala Harris (who chairs the National Space Council) among the government partners taking steps to address space debris in recent months. Among other actions, the FCC recently updated its debris rules, and Harris pledged that the United States would not conduct destructive ASAT tests of its own.

SST can see as high as geosynchronous orbit, Space Force says. The telescope is now situated at Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt on the northwest coast of Australia to assist that country's space domain awareness efforts, along with aiming to improve overall coverage of U.S. geosynchronous monitoring, Space Force added. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace