March 24, 2022
Locating and tracking active satellites and debris in geosynchronous orbit, more than 22,000 miles above the Earth, is a real-world challenge.
Tools such as optical sensors — both in space and on the ground — can be hindered by sunlight and weather and also lack the range or sensitivity for precise tracking.
Taking a novel approach to the problem, engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, developed and validated the Deep Space Advanced Radar Concept (DARC), a technology demonstrator that uses a sparse array of dish antennas to track objects in space.
Backed by APL’s significant experience in national security space and air and missile defense, DARC will become the largest-ever tracking radar system.
“DARC technology demonstration is addressing several risks for a future operational radar that enables deep space domain awareness for the nation,” said Patrick Binning, APL’s mission area executive for National Security Space. “DARC provides the foundation for a critical capability for the defense of space.”
The U.S. Space Force received DARC technology from APL last year. Ultimately, the operational DARC program calls for three transmit/receive sites, spaced at mid-latitudes around the world, to detect, track and maintain custody of satellites.
“The underlying technology for DARC is an example of a critical contribution APL is making in national security,” said Donna Bush, APL’s program manager for DARC. “There are potentially many applications for a system that allows coherent synchronization of radars.”
The Laboratory is acting as design agent of the government reference architecture for the operational program. This effort is the result of nearly a decade of hard work and dedication by many APL professionals in collaboration with the sponsor — inspired by a 2009 NASA study to illustrate how a collection of smaller antennas can be coherently combined to replace a single large antenna at significant cost savings.
By leaning heavily on commercially available components, the APL team reduced technical risk and validated the system’s design prior to the government implementing an operational radar system, which includes multiple high-powered transmit antennas and receive antennas.
“With this demonstration, APL transformed a paper concept into a highly tailorable, scalable and affordable solution that can be built primarily with commercial off-the-shelf hardware,” said David Van Wie, head of APL’s Air and Missile Defense Sector.
When the Space Force establishes a fully operational system based on the APL blueprint, the nation will have an around-the-clock capability to better monitor potential threats, communications and other satellites vital to national security.
“With the accomplishments of the DARC demo, APL continues our legacy of notable participation in major government programs,” said Michael Ryschkewitsch, former head of APL’s Space Exploration Sector. “Our commitment to rapidly deliver the prototype system within a very aggressive schedule and at a very low relative cost emphasizes APL’s role in working with government and industry partners to ensure the nation’s security and defense.”
Ryschkewitsch credited the DARC team for overcoming several technical and logistical challenges tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media contact: Michael Buckley, 240-228-7536, Michael.Buckley@jhuapl.edu
The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.