Among the various complex, clever, futuristic solutions to solving the space-junk problem, DARPA's just unveiled a new tool to help with the job that's wonderfully simple. It's a telescope, to look for the stuff.
In conjunction with the USAF, DARPA's announced the availability of a new telescope that it's adding to the current Space Surveillance Network. It's the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), and it's got one singular power: It can survey the sky faster than any other telescope of its class, meaning it can collect data on space junk faster than has ever been possible before. And since the 'scope can actually see dimmer objects, it can correctly resolve images of smaller debris—meaning more accurate mapping of the goings-on among the horrifying cloud of spent rocket parts, dropped space tools, and bits of exploded satellite that are orbiting Earth like a particularly trashy ring, one that can also destroy satellites and potentially kill spacewalking astronauts.
The SST was nine years in development, and came with a relatively small price tag of just $110 million. MIT's aerospace engineers were involved in its design and were responsible for its 3.5-meter aperture and curved CCD sensor design. This aperture size is three times bigger than typical ground-based telescopes, and means the SST can capture "wide-angle" views of the sky to garner more data in one image than similar systems can. The telescope's frame is also designed to maneuver more swiftly, so it can scan more quickly.
Compared to some of the beautiful, intelligent, high tech, futuristic, and far-flung ideas about dealing with the space debris problem, the SST is a simple and effective solution that may well see multiple installations around the globe to create a 360-degree scan of the sky for the most accurate map of space junk yet. It's the necessary first phase in any junk-disposal plans.