Early Tests Prove Technical Breakthrough in Affordable, High-performance Telescope for Real Time Detection of Small, Dark, Fast-Moving Objects in Cislunar and Deep Space


TransAstra’s proprietary technology boasts a hundred times more strength, accuracy than existing telescopes, at a fraction of the cost

LOS ANGELES, June 21, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Orbital logistics and space mining leader TransAstra Corporation today announced the successful completion of the proof-of-concept phase for its new Sutter Telescope System, which detects and tracks small, dark, fast-moving objects in cislunar and deep space with a hundred times greater strength and accuracy than existing telescopes, at a fraction of the cost.

Originally invented to enable prospecting for the vast mineral wealth in asteroids, the Sutter Telescope System significantly advances space domain awareness capabilities, increasing orbital safety for both humans and equipment and improving orbital traffic management everywhere in cislunar space in particular, from low Earth orbit to the Moon. The system was field tested at the Tuscon, Arizona-based Irvin Marvin Winer Memorial Mobile Observatory.

“This technology has profound implications for our ability to access space more safely and affordably,” said TransAstra CEO Dr. Joel C. Sercel. “We know the collision risk of debris in low Earth orbit is high and will only grow as space traffic increases. The Sutter system marks the first time we have been able to use modest, off-the-shelf and low-cost telescope and computer components to find and accurately track fast-moving objects in deep space that can be as much as a hundred times fainter than objects currently seen by conventional systems.” Sercel noted that the private sector, NASA, and the U.S. Space Force have all expressed a growing need for improved debris and space traffic management all the way out to the Moon, and added that the Sutter system will be a breakthrough in meeting these needs.

The system, named for the lumber mill where the discovery of gold in the 19th century sparked the California Gold Rush, also has the potential to enhance space defense by providing better detection of hostile actors, and to enable better detection of near-earth asteroids that could pose an impact threat to earth. However, its ultimate application is to find and prospect thousands of asteroids containing potentially trillions of dollars of mineral and resource wealth that are scientifically known to be easy to access with mining spacecraft, but impossible to find and track with today’s telescopes.

How the Sutter System Works

The system is powered by TransAstra’s proprietary technology, Optimized Matched Filter Tracking (OMFT), which uses a highly specialized computational filter to enable night-sky imaging of very small, dark, high-speed objects, including asteroids, satellites, and orbital debris. Using OMFT, the Sutter Telescope System can track high-speed moving targets in real time with unprecedented sensitivity and modest computing requirements.

“Because they rely on long exposures, conventional telescopes – which to date have been our primary tool in the growing demand for space domain awareness – are only able to capture small or faint objects if the objects are stationary or slow-moving,” adds Sercel, who notes that these telescopes can cost millions to billions of dollars and are limited by their earth-bound location. “They will never be the solution we need – they weren’t built for it.”

By contrast, Sutter telescopes designed for use in ground-based observatories cost about as much as a standard automobile and are not much larger than the telescopes used by amateur astronomers. For even better performance, TransAstra’s Sutter telescopes can be flown in space in what Sercel calls “compound optical systems,” in which many small scopes work together to function as a single unit forming a compound eye covering a rotating, 45-degree field of view.

Next Steps in Sutter System Development

The current Sutter test model, comprising four telescopes, moved in early April from TransAstra’s development lab in California to the Winer Observatory, where over the past two months it tracked multiple small, dark, fast-moving objects by collecting about 50 extended images every night built from over 6,000 exposures taken over an eight-hour period.

Now that this phase of field testing has concluded, the test model will undergo upgrades and resume testing at the observatory after the conclusion of the region’s monsoon season. Later this year TransAstra plans to deploy a further upgraded system at one additional observatory in California and next year plans to start deploying several systems at various observatories around the world for better global coverage of the night sky.

Sercel says TransAstra anticipates sending a small commercial system into space as early as mid-2023 to provide even better coverage of the sky. A few years after that, the ultimate application of this technology is a new type of compound space telescope system TransAstra calls Sutter Ultra.

“We were honored to be a part of this phase in the development of such groundbreaking technology,” noted Winer Observatory Founder and Executive Director Mark Trueblood about the initial Sutter system testing. “Our long-term interest in asteroids in particular makes our partnership with TransAstra a particularly good fit, and we’re excited to see how this work expands the scientific understanding of fast-moving objects in space.”

About TransAstra

Founded in 2017, TransAstra (TransAstra.com) is a U.S. orbital logistics and space mining company advancing the industrialization and settlement of space through the sustainable and ethical development of critical, dual-use space infrastructure technologies powered by the resources of space and the energy of the sun. The 2021 YCombinator alum, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, has been issued 5 patents and has more than 10 additional patents pending.

About Winer Observatory

The Irvin Marvin Winer Memorial Mobile Observatory, Inc. (Winer Observatory) was founded in 1983 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity to perform basic research in astronomy, provide educational outreach programs, and provide site and maintenance services for small telescopes through cooperative agreements with other astronomical institutions. The facility is located on 21 acres in Sonoita, Arizona, approximately 50 miles southeast of Tucson.

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