An autonomous star tracker (AST) is basically a `star field in, attitude out' device capable of determining its attitude without requiring any a priori attitude knowledge. In addition to this attitude acquisition capability, an AST can perform attitude updates autonomously and is able to provide its attitude `continuously' while tracking a star field. The Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory is developing a reliable, low-cost, miniature AST that has a one arcsec overall accuracy, weighs less than 1.5 kg, consumes less than 7 watts of power, and is sufficiently sensitive to be used at all sky locations. The device performs attitude acquisition in a fraction of a second and outputs its attitude at a 10 Hz rate when operating in its tracking mode. Besides providing the functionality needed for future advanced attitude control and navigation systems, an AST also improves spacecraft reliability, mass, power, cost, and operating expenses. The AST comprises a-thermalized, refractive optics, a frame-transfer CCD with a sensitive area of 1024 by 1024 pixels, camera electronics implemented with application- specific integrated circuits, a compact single board computer with a radiation hard 32 bit RISC processor, and an all-sky guide star database. Star identification is performed by a memory- efficient and highly robust algorithm that finds the largest group of observed stars matching a group of guide stars. An important milestone has recently been achieved with the validation of the attitude acquisition capability through correct and rapid identification of all 704 true-sky star fields obtained at the Lick Observatory, using an uncalibrated prototype AST with a 512 by 1024 pixel frame-transfer CCD and a 50 mm f/1.2 lens that provided an effective 6.5 by 13.2 degree field of view. The overlapping fields cover 47% of the sky, including both rich and sparse areas. The paper contains a description of the AST, a summary of the functions enabled or improved by the device, an overview of the identification algorithm, results obtained with a realistic simulation program, a description of the true-sky star field identification method and a presentation of the results obtained. The AST tolerates the presence of bright objects as was demonstrated by a field that included Jupiter.