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MOIRE: DARPA’S New Orbital Eye In the Sky to Focus On You?

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Semi-secret U.S. agency to deliver MOIRE folding space telescope, which aims to “break the glass ceiling” of traditional designs and offer another cool acronym.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced their Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program, which will use clever new technologies to deliver a high-resolution telescope into geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO). This new eye in the sky will resolve details as small as one meter in size from a vantage point roughly 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface, as both real-time video and still images.

As DARPA notes:

“The capability of orbital telescopes to see wide swaths of the earth at a time has made them indispensable for key national security responsibilities such as weather forecasting, reconnaissance and disaster response. Even as telescope design has advanced, however, one aspect has remained constant since Galileo: using glass for lenses and mirrors, also known as optics. High-resolution imagery traditionally has required large-diameter glass mirrors, which are thick, heavy, difficult to make and expensive. As the need for higher-resolution orbital imagery expands, glass mirrors are fast approaching the point where they will be too large, heavy and costly for even the largest of today’s rockets to carry to orbit.

DARPA’s Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program seeks to address these challenges. Size and cost constraints have so far prevented placing large-scale imaging satellites in GEO, so MOIRE is developing technologies that would make orbital telescopes much lighter, more transportable and more cost-effective.”

Now in its second and final phase, the MOIRE program, led by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., recently successfully demonstrated a ground-based prototype that incorporated lightweight polymer membrane optics to replace glass mirrors. MOIRE has achieved a technological first for membrane optics by nearly doubling their efficiency, from 30 percent to 55 percent.

MOIRESizeComparison 600x544 MOIRE: DARPA’S New Orbital Eye In the Sky to Focus On You?

This illustration demonstrates the size of the MOIRE system in comparison to other telescopes, including the Hubble.

While the membrane is less efficient than glass, which is nearly 90 percent efficient, its much lighter weight enables creating larger lenses that more than make up the difference. Based on this prototype, a new system incorporating MOIRE optics would come in at roughly one-seventh the weight of a traditional system of the same resolution and mass.

From GEO, a satellite using MOIRE optics could see approximately 40 percent of the Earth’s surface at once and focus on a 10 km-by-10 km area at 1-meter resolution, and provide real-time video at 1 frame per second.

Ever have that feeling that you’re being watched? If so, you can get more details directly from DARPA.


Images: DARPA

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