DARPA creates a giant folding satellite to watch the world

By | Science & Technology
Image courtesy of DARPA

The US department of defence have commissioned and built what can only be described as a giant folding space telescope. Whilst the satellite is only in its late prototype stages, it is set to dwarf all of its celestial predecessors. With telescopes, size really does matter and it is this factor that limits what can be achieved. Whilst space is rather accommodating a rocket has little room for big heavy satellites, as such a balance is usually made limiting size over reduced weight.

To surpass these limitations, researchers at DARPA have simply scrapped the conventional design removing the fundamental glass elements of the telescope. Instead of a solid glass lens this rig deploys a flexible membrane. This frees up a substantial amount of weight and it also removes the complex logistics of firing a large fragile piece of glass into orbit and it arriving intact. Whilst its design likens the satellite to a flower with a petal arrangement of thin plastic films, a snails eye would be a more fitting description due to its purpose. By using the new lightweight flexible films the whole structure can be folded down, flat-packed and fitted into a modestly sized rocket. Thus making it the largest telescope satellite to be sent to space with relative logistical ease.

This new design will span a 20.7 meter eye which is capable of observing forty percent of the globe at any one time. With such a high coverage it becomes reasonable to assume worldwide observation could be carried out by as little as three satellites. With technology of this nature the application will always lie in a grey area due to its affiliation with a military force.

With this being said, this technology has far greater aspirations than surveillance and truly has the capabilities of serving mankind on an international scale. In a recent press release DARPA tried to highlight the possible advancements towards meteorological studies and with typhoons fresh within international memory, weather prediction technology would surely be benefited. Though DARPA is military at heart their inventions extend further than just military use. Technology such as thought controlled prosthetics, satellite recycling units and many advancements within robotics, this is equipment with countless civilians use.

The folding Satellite known as MOIRE which stands for membrane optical imager for real-time, in the hands of any military it has the primary purpose of surveillance upon countries of interest. This obviously raises several concerns about privacy and possibly legality, yet it would also give access to countries that shield its unstable and immoral political systems from exposure. Again this is the previously discussed military grey area that surrounds its tech, although it really should be celebrated as a new technology, one that will eventually filter into the use of organisations that support worthy causes.

One example of such a worthy cause is the current controversy surrounding the ivory trade within China. Elephant populations are declining at an unprecedented level, possibly even one hundred a day. In 2007 a survey was carried out by the international fund for animal welfare which showed up to seventy percent of the Chinese population were unaware that elephants were the source of ivory. With this being said declining elephant numbers are phenomenally disregarded, though the new MOIRE could offer assistance. Large mammals like elephants cover vast ranges and as such are hard to count and track, vital statistics when observing accurate population numbers. Without accurate data conservation is hard, these details directly relate to how much we can help.

Currently, elephants are counted from a light aircraft, their size makes them easy enough to spot as long as a team of trained individuals provide the extensive man hours needed to carry it out. Yet with the observation capabilities of MOIRE the entire African range of these animals could be recorded seven days a week, year on year. Whales too could be observed through this method, large mammals face increasing pressure from an urbanising world and conservation aiding data collection should adapt to counterbalance this issue. Whilst a single species of whales or elephants lost to extinction may affect humankind very little, the ever decreasing worldwide biodiversity is critically important to our future.

If a military serves to defend a nation how much investment should be directed in issues such as conservation which act to protect our world and in turn ourselves?

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