In-house Telescope Provides New Capabilities

by Heather Golden
posted September 04, 2013

A handful of scientists and engineers within the Remote Sensing Department needed a telescope with multiple capabilities, and close at hand.

So, they built one.

When a new laboratory on the El Segundo campus was constructed, the scientists were asked to forward any requests they had for new capabilities. A team within the Remote Sensing Department saw a use for a moderately sized, versatile telescope, and successfully claimed a portion of the building’s roof.

“We want something close to the facility, so people can walk in and have something to take back to the machine shop,” said Rick Rudy, associate director, Remote Sensing Department.

The new telescope has a rare quality in that its use is not limited to nighttime observations. It has daylight capabilities as well, implemented by using infrared and high frame-rate sensors.

“In addition to being able to track stars, we need to be able to track satellites as well, especially faster ones close to Earth,” Rudy said. “Fundamentally, we want to be able to see active satellites. This telescope is designed to be able to do that.

“You always want to have access to the sky,” he said.

The telescope can also be used to track the occasional launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, view objects reentering the atmosphere, update positions for orbiting space debris and derelict objects, and identify objects in geosynchronous orbits.

Rudy said he hopes the telescope can be used to boost quality assurance by giving the team another method to detect weathering and damage to components already in space, such as on the solar panels that power satellites.

The telescope’s design supports a variety of cameras and spectrographs, and is flexible enough to accommodate a broader range of instrumentation in the future. Two instruments, optical cameras used at different observing points, have been used seriously so far. The telescope features five more cameras, four with infrared capabilities, which the team plans to put into use soon. There are also two spectrographs operating in both the visible and the infrared portions of the spectrum.

The E Pod at night with a view of two observation domes. The telescope is housed in the dome on the left. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

The new laboratory building at night with a view of two observation domes. The telescope is housed in the dome on the left. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

“The telescope can see quasars that are more than halfway across the universe,” Rudy said. “These objects are faint in appearance, but incredibly luminous so we can see them at immense distances.

“As far as remote sensing capability, having a facility that can do that is an extreme thing,” Rudy said. “There are a myriad of potential applications.”

For bigger jobs, the team has access to a powerful telescope on top of a mountain in Hawaii, which is much larger and much more powerful. It is also “expensive, remote and not good for experimenting,” said Rudy.

The local telescope is accessible at all hours and is much cheaper to operate. This makes it perfect to experiment on before heading to a more powerful telescope for exact measurements.

With the larger telescope, the team has to have their instruments perfect beforehand. Here, with the local telescope, the team is free to work out those issues.

They plan to use it to “complement operations we have in Hawaii,” Rudy said. “But here, you can make mistakes, make changes, make better predictions.”

Comet photo taken while testing the new telescope in March. (Photo: The Aerospace Corporation)

Comet photo taken while testing the new telescope in March. (Photo: The Aerospace Corporation)

The entire project has taken three years, and was one Rudy called “a labor of love.” The team designed and built everything themselves, from the pier to the optical support structure to the focus mechanisms. The only pieces they did not build were the telescope drives and the mirrors, although the team did design the mirrors, too.

“This is a very exciting time for us,” Rudy said.

The completed telescope weighs in at around 1,200 pounds, which is much lighter than most telescopes with comparable capabilities. This was by design, as well. The less the telescope weighed, the less the materials and drives would cost. The main telescope is complete and operational, and the final step in construction will be to disassemble the parts and send the optical support structure out to be powder coated, painted and anodized to provide long-term protection to the materials.

So far, the team has observed several satellites and a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“Aerospace has responsibility in a lot of areas and interest in even more areas,” Rudy said. “This telescope provides a way to address these. We hope we can bring new capabilities online.”