DARPA’s New Spy Satellite Could Provide Real-Time Video From Anywhere on Earth

by Nancy Atkinson on December 20, 2011

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Artist concept of the Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE). Credit: DARPA

“It sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake” could be the theme song for a new spy satellite being developed by DARPA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s latest proof-of-concept project is called the Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE), and would provide real-time images and video of any place on Earth at any time — a capability that, so far, only exists in the realm of movies and science fiction. The details of this huge eye-in-the-sky look like something right out of science fiction, as well, and it would be interesting to determine if it could have applications for astronomy as well.

MOIRE would be a geosynchronous orbital system that uses a huge but lightweight membrane optic. A 20-meter-wide membrane “eye” would be etched with a diffractive pattern, according to DARPA, which would focus light on a sensor. Reportedly it will cost $500 million USD for each space-based telescope, and it would be able to image an area greater than 100 x 100 km with a video update rate of at least one frame a second.

DARPA says the program aims to demonstrate the ability to manufacture large membranes and large structures to hold the optics flat, and also demonstrate the secondary optical elements needed to turn a diffraction-based optic into a wide bandwidth imaging device.
The MOIRE program began in March 2010 is now in the first phase of development, where DARPA is testing the concept’s viability. Phase 2 would entail system design, with Ball Aerospace doing the design and building to test a 16-foot (5 m) telescope, and an option for a Phase 3 which would include a demonstration of the system, launching a 32-foot (10 m) telescope for flight tests in orbit.

The 20 meter (66 ft) design is quite a bit larger than NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope that has an aperture of 21 feet (6.5 m).

Public Intelligence reports that such a telescope should be able to spot missile launcher vehicles moving at speeds of up to 60 mph on the ground, according to a DARPA contract. That would also require the image resolution to see objects less than 10 feet (3 m) long within a single image pixel.

Can we order one for looking for extrasolar planets?

Read more about the MOIRE on DARPA’s website.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Kev Girard December 20, 2011 at 9:16 PM

A spy satellite? I vote NO for this project already.

Anonymous December 20, 2011 at 9:38 PM

What a wuss and a crybaby you are. Nobody is going to use this to figure out what kind of cereal you are eating. This is for safety to make sure no one drops a bomb on american cities.

Anonymous December 21, 2011 at 12:45 AM

The ad hominem shouldn’t be necessary to defend your point, and I don’t think cereal is what what he was thinking either =P

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE December 21, 2011 at 5:43 AM

In Star Trek: DS9, the Obsidian Order kept very close tabs on all Cardassian citizens to ensure loyalty. Security Chief Odo noted that the average Cardassian could not sit down to dinner without the contents of the said meal being noted and logged by the Order. Odo also noted that the Order caused people to disappear for even less than eating something the order did not approve of.

So, what kind cereal are you eating? ;-)

squidgeny December 21, 2011 at 1:11 PM

Anyone with an interest in the development of space should welcome every spy satellite launched – the testing of new launching methods, new communication equipment, new power systems, new optical systems, and new [anything to do with satellites] is highly beneficial to the non-military space programs.

I can see why most people here would object – anyone with an interest in our transition to a space-faring civilization would necessarily see the pettiness of our inter-national relations as quite a big barrier to such progress, and people like Carl Sagan (and fiction like Star Trek) promote that view… however I think the argument can be made that US spy satellites will help keep the world largely peaceful, which is what we need if we want to see civilian space programs continue.

If the world descends into total war again there won’t be a lot of funding going around for trips to Mars and star telescopes.

Anonymous December 20, 2011 at 10:43 PM

This is like STEREO probe for earth

Jonathan May December 20, 2011 at 11:04 PM

Sweet. Combine it with face recognition technology and find anyone anywhere outside.

Anonymous December 21, 2011 at 1:04 AM

That would also require the image resolution to see objects less than 10 feet (3 m) long within a single image pixel.

face recognition technology

Insert “yer momma” joke here.

Steve Nerlich December 21, 2011 at 11:47 AM

Let’s just barcode babies. It’s time.

TerryG December 21, 2011 at 3:13 PM

Nah….too easily defeated by wearing a low-tech Stetson.

On the upside, there might be less chance of Darpa’s new toy accidentally landing intact in the surveillance zone.

Anonymous December 21, 2011 at 12:37 AM

It’s pointed the wrong way…

Tony Power December 21, 2011 at 5:29 AM

If you re-read the article, it says the light passes through the membraine and is focused on a sensor. Therefore the membraine should be closer to the target with the sensor behind the membraine. To sum-up, its pointed the right way.

Anonymous December 21, 2011 at 8:22 AM

lol I’m not making some kind of assertion about the engineering of the spacecraft. Just a wise crack expressing my preference for a true telescope =P

Bertie Seyffert December 21, 2011 at 1:10 AM

Can I just point out a more benign possible use for a system such as this? One of the key achievement in the development of a race such as ours is to be able to harness all the energy it’s planet receives from it’s parent star. Whilst I know that this technology isn’t going to do this, I must point out that (after adding some other capabilities besides video, of course) this system could be a first step in us actually knowing where all that incident energy is by allowing us to monitor conditions on large portions of the earths surface. Yes, this is not what this satellite is being developed to do, but the TCP/IP protocol (the basis of our beloved internet) was also originally developed by those same folks at DARPA, originally intended to only connect a backbone of military installations (so they could whisper behind our backs).

Some see evil, I see only progress…. :D

William Sparrow December 21, 2011 at 1:18 AM

It’s its, not it’s in the context of your comment. Sorry Ivan ; = )

Anonymous December 21, 2011 at 1:58 PM

lol, I thought I may have messed those up :P. My native language is Afrikaans, so be gentle :D.

Anonymous December 21, 2011 at 12:16 PM

As one, I just hope they keep the batteries of computers modeling, designing and engineering this Science Fiction materialization of surveillance technology unplugged from the Internet — and keep those repositories of expensive, hard-won data disconnected! Else, in not too long a time, engineers across the Pacific ( if not also the Atlantic ) will be analyzing ALL the specifications for manufacturing their “own” version.

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