The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking to extract antennas and other valuable components from what typically is considered space junk.
Under a demonstration project called Phoenix, DARPA would team up with the private sector to use technologies to harvest and re-purpose still-functional components from retired, nonworking satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost. With the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) facing hefty budget cuts, the program proposes to remove used parts from retired satellites and re-attach them to newly launched satellites.
“If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource,” said DARPA Director, Regina E. Dugan.
More than $300 billion in satellites are estimated to be in GEO roughly 22,000 miles above the earth. Many of the retired satellites have components that last far longer than the spacecraft and could be reused for new missions.
A big challenge is developing the technologies required to reuse the salvageable components. The incentive is potentially big cost savings that could be derived by avoiding the need to manufacture and to launch heavy antennas into orbit when existing ones are available to be re-attached to a new satellite.
Indeed, one of the primary drivers of launch costs is the weight and volume of antennas.
However, the components of retired satellites only will only be salvaged with the approval of their owners, said David Barnhart, program direction of DARPA’s Phoenix project.
“The techniques and technologies we plan to demonstrate with Phoenix will be completely coordinated with prior discussion, agreement, support and permission with the owners of U.S. government or U.S. commercial retired satellites,” Barnhart said. “The technology, once proven, could potentially be used via a similar pre-coordination process with the owners of any satellite. Phoenix is meant to explore well beyond traditional servicing activities, specifically to facilitate acceptance of potential follow-on commercial services that could benefit the DoD.”
The Phoenix program would help DARPA limit the risk of its planned activities by using a series of small, re-purposing demonstrations on orbit. If successful, the Phoenix program would provide some unique and demonstrable metrics to develop standards that the DoD and the industry could use in space-servicing missions, Barnhart said.
DARPA issued its first Broad Area Announcement (BAA) for the program in December 2011 and proposals to help the agency address a number of technical challenges are due on Feb. 6. Barnhart said he expects the program to be in full technical swing by the summer of 2012 to address numerous challenges.
The first in-orbit demonstration of the needed technologies, techniques and operations for harvesting satellite parts should begin by 2016, Barnhart said. The project next would next need to establish the Phoenix architecture for the technologies, techniques and practices required to make the repurposing project viable for DoD’s current and future needs, he added.
One aspect of the program that is critical to carry out its mission is development and use of a robotically enabled Servicer/Tender spacecraft. To meet that challenge, the best of ground- based tele-presence operation technologies would be married with both ground and space-based robotics to support disassembly and re-assembly through a wireless link controlled by humans who would be roughly 20,000 miles away, Barnhart said.
Also required would be the development of a new way to build satellites on-orbit, Barnhart said. In a process that he called “cellularization,” nanosatellites would be launched into orbit as “ride-along” payloads on commercial launchers. The nanosatellites, or “satlets,” would be robotically combined by the proposed Phoenix Servicer/Tender.
“For example, small, inexpensive satlets that can only complete a small subset of the specific functions of a contemporary large communications satellite could be physically attached in space to a very large antenna from a retired, cooperating satellite to resurrect a new communications capability,” Barnhart said.
If the Phoenix Servicer/Tender’s on-orbit robotic capability successfully can successfully place components on a new satellite to support needed spacecraft functions such as power, communications, attitude control, etc., the time and money required to put a satellite in orbit would be “drastically lower,” Barnhart said.
The use of hosted payloads would be another development needed to make the Phoenix project a success, Barnhart said. Such payloads could be carried aboard commercial launches as “ride-alongs,” he added.
Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband and hosted payloads.