DARPA wants to give dead, in-orbit satellites new life

DARPA says squadron of tiny “satlets” could retrofit bigger satellites in graveyard orbits

Scientists at DARPA say there are some 1,300 satellites worth over $300B sitting out in Earth's geostationary orbit (GEO) that could be retrofitted or harvested for new communications roles.

And it is now looking for a way to do just that herculean task.

Late in December the agency said it expected to award about $36M worth of contracts to companies interested in building system components for its Phoenix program which would use a squadron of what DARPA calls "satlets" and a larger tender craft to retrofit or retrieve old satellites and parts for reuse.

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The idea is that retrofitting and reusing old satellites could be cheaper than developing, building and launching new spacecraft.

DARPA's description of the Phoenix system goes like this: "A new class of small 'satlets', or nano satellites, which could be sent to the GEO region as a "ride along" on a commercial satellite launch, and then attach to the antenna of a non-operational cooperating satellite robotically, essentially creating a new space system. A payload orbital delivery system, or PODS, will also be designed to safely house the Satlets for transport aboard a commercial satellite launch as a hosted payload. A separate on-orbit 'tender,' or satellite servicing spacecraft is also expected to be built and launched into GEO. Once the tender arrives on-orbit, the PODS would then be released from its ride-along host and link up with the tender to become part of the satellite servicer's 'tool belt.' The tender plans to be equipped with grasping mechanical arms for removing the Satlets and components from the PODS using unique robotic tools to be developed in the program."

When DARPA first talked about the Phoenix program in October, it acknowledged the difficulties facing any Phoenix developers.

 "Satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it's not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts," said David Barnhart, DARPA program manager in a release. "This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems, since existing joints are usually molded or welded. Another challenge is developing new remote operating procedures to hold two parts together so a third robotic 'hand' can join them with a third part, such as a fastener, all in zero gravity.  For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope."

Today's ground-based robotics systems let surgeons perform telesurgery on a patient thousands of miles away, and advanced remote imaging systems used for offshore drilling view the ocean floor thousands of feet underwater. These types of capabilities, if re-engineered for zero gravity, high-vacuum and harsh radiation, could be used in space to allow the repurposing of valuable antennas from retired GEO satellites, DARPA stated. 

DARPA says it expects to have an on-orbit demonstration in 2015-2016 of at least one successful aperture repurposing demonstrations using a robotic GEO spacecraft. The on-orbit demonstration will take place in both the GEO and super-GEO or graveyard orbit, with precise orbit parameters and selection of candidate retired satellites to be determined, and will be approximately six months duration, with a potential subsequent residual capability of up to 48 months.

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