ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Albuquerque-based engineering firm Applied Technology Associates has won a $27.8 million Naval Research Laboratory contract to build a new sensor and telescope for mapping satellites and other objects in deep space.
Once built, the new technology could provide a huge boost to government efforts to fully chart the estimated 1,200-plus satellites and objects floating around some 20,000 miles out, said Andy Suzuki, project manager for the contract and head of ATA operations in Washington, D.C. That’s something the government’s Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance system, or GEODSS, has been working on for more than three decades.
“It could potentially provide the biggest upgrade in 20 years to the GEODSS network,” Suzuki said. “This can allow situational awareness in deep space. The goal is to maintain a listing, or catalogue, of all objects in space — what they are and what they’re doing.”
The GEODSS system, launched in 1980, has three operational sites around the world in New Mexico, Hawaii and the British Indian Ocean Territories. Telescopes at the sites, which report to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, use cameras for rapid electronic snapshots that show up as tiny streaks on a console screen. Computers analyze the data to configure positions of objects.
The GEODSS sites can track things as small as a basketball at more than 20,000 miles. But the system only operates at night, and cloud cover and local weather conditions can influence its effectiveness.
With ATA’s advanced electro-optical and infrared sensing and techniques, the new system will be able to operate both day and night, Suzuki said. The sensor will use wave bands that can better penetrate the atmosphere.
“The sensors pick up reflected light off the satellites,” Suzuki said. “We’ll process the data to create a finger print that differentiates one satellite from another.”
The company already installed one advanced sensor on an existing GEODSS telescope in Maui. Under the new contract it received last month, however, ATA will build the entire telescope, sensor and all hardware for the system. Once built and demonstrated, the company expects to sell fully integrated systems to GEODSS sites and other customers.
That could thrust ATA, a homegrown New Mexico firm, into a new realm of engineering services. Until now, ATA has generally only provided critical components for new technology rather than complete systems, said ATA director of business development Larry Lloyd.
“It expands our offering,” Lloyd said. “Traditionally, we’ve been a component supplier. This allows us to move up the food chain.”
Work on the contract will be divided between ATA’s new offices in Virginia, which opened this year, and its 41,000-square-foot engineering facility in Albuquerque. The company expects to ramp up hiring now for the project, and more when it moves to manufacturing and selling the telescope and sensor system after the naval contract ends in 2020.
The company, a long-time member of the Flying 40 annual list of fast-growing local technology firms, continues to grow rapidly. It reached $49 million in revenue and 293 employees in 2015, up from $36 million and 196 people in 2010.