DFM Engineering installs a 1.3 Meter Telescope for NASA-MCAT

mcat ascension island and inset map
The NASA MCAT 1.3m Telescope and Observatory is located on the coast of Ascension Island in the remote mid Atlantic Ocean near the equator.

mcat logo

mcat 1.3m telescope observatory on ascension island
NASA MCAT 1.3m Telescope and Observatory on Ascension Island
photo credit: LAC Ben Hana, Royal Air Force


In June 2015 DFM finished the installation of another double horseshoe 1.3 meter telescope, this one for NASA on Ascension Island.

The Meter Class Autonomous Telescope (MCAT) will provide mid Atlantic coverage for NASA's ability to track orbital debris.

With an ever increasing load of orbiting objects to keep track of, NASA was looking for non-traditional telescope sites out in the oceans near the equator to fill gaps in their debris tracking system. (see below: "The Optical Telescope Advantage")

mcat 1.3m telescope optimization for satellite tracking
NASA MCAT 1.3m Telescope is optimized to track satellites.
Shown above, prior to protective powder coating finish.

In 2008 NASA approached DFM to optimize our new double horseshoe equatorial mount design to track satellites.

Tracking satellites requires much higher than normal slew and tracking speeds and very high fidelity tracking in both axes at non-sidereal rates.

The unique DFM double horseshoe mount configuration is ideally suited to this application.

The double horseshoe mount is nearly the same as an Altitude over Altitude mount which eliminates both the blind-spot at the zenith and the need to flip the telescope when it crosses the meridian.

When ordered in 2009, the MCAT was originally designed and built for service on Kwajalein Atoll Island of Legan in the Pacific Ocean.

When the Atlantic Ocean site on Ascension Island became available, DFM was asked to modify the mount for the different latitude and hemisphere while the new site was being prepared. DFM was able to accommodate this unusual request with minimal complications.

(see select telescope installation images)

mcat 1.3m telescope installed
NASA MCAT 1.3m Double Horseshoe Mount Telescope is installed.
Tracking satellites and orbital space debris will be a main focus.
photo credit: LAC Ben Hana, Royal Air Force

The Ascension Island site is very different from most observatory sites in that it is less than ½ mile from the open ocean, and only 300 feet above sea level.

Furthermore, the continuous trade winds carry volcanic pumice and high relative humidity.

The harsh environment prompted the development of a dry air purge system for the optics and critical drive components.

1.3m double horseshoe mount telescope installation team
The1.3m Double Horseshoe Mount Telescope Installation Team
From left to right: Ian Huss, Production Manager;
Mark Kelley, Vice President; Richard Neel, Technician
photo credit: LAC Ben Hana, Royal Air Force

The DFM installation team consisted of Mark Kelley, Ian Huss, and Richard Neel.

With combined experience of more than 80 years in the field this was our "A" team.

The new MCAT observatory building is exceptional. The attention to detail displayed by NASA's on-site lead Tom Glesne was greatly appreciated.

While the island itself is isolated enough to make technical work difficult, the local support, construction, and crane personnel were all excellent.

It was very gratifying to confirm Tom's building alignment to within 2 arc minutes of true north.

Tom Glesene and 1.3m MCAT
photo credit: LAC Ben Hana, Royal Air Force

Susan Lederer
NASA MCAT 1.3m and Dr. Susan Lederer.
photo credit: LAC Ben Hana, Royal Air Force

The MCAT project scientist, Dr. Susan Lederer, joined the DFM team for the final 4 weeks of the installation to acquire as much hands-on experience as possible with installing and tuning the optics and mount.

We believe her new insight and experience will play a large part in the future success of the project given the remoteness and harsh environment of the site.

The Optical Telescope Advantage:

Optical telescopes and radar are tools used to obtain a more complete picture of the orbital debris environment.

Each of these tools sees a somewhat different debris environment. Some debris objects will reflect radar well, but sunlight poorly; while some will reflect sunlight well, but radar poorly.

An advantage to using an optical telescope rather than radar is that telescopes can more easily detect debris objects in higher altitudes, such as geosynchronous (GEO) orbits.

Excerpt from NASA Orbital Debris: Quarterly News, Vol. 19, Issue 3, July 2015

The fast tracking telescope follows debris targets in any direction across the sky. It eliminates both the blind-spot at the zenith that is so typical of astronomical telescopes as well as the need to flip the telescope when it crosses the meridian. It will enable NASA to deepen the understanding of the debris environment around Earth.

MCAT is a unique telescope, one of only two like it in the world - a [20,000 lb. fast-tracking] double horseshoe mount telescope designed by DFM Engineering that allows NASA to track not just Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) debris, but fast-moving low Earth orbit (LEO) debris.


NASA MCAT Installation Images

NASA MCAT Ascension Island

The NASA MCAT Original Project Description

NASA MCAT Terminology and Acronyms

other noteworthy links . . .

Custom Telescopes

Observatory Design and Consulting

Another 1.3m Telescope Installation for IIA