DARPA: Robot Satellite Salvagers

A research team at the Pentagon has reported launched a new project aimed at harvesting parts from old communication satellites in an attempt to use them to make new ones.


The project, which is being led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is expected to help lower costs of making new satellites for communication in space, advancing U.S. interests in space technology and communication. DARPA officials announced Tuesday that it plans to offer robotic, in-orbit satellite servicing starting in 2015, which would recycle old satellites to provide greater communication capabilities to warfighters from 22,000 miles above the earth.

DARPA is the first agency to attempt to find a way to salvage parts from old satellites. According to David Barnhart the DARPA program manager, the main reason the agency is conducting the project is to save money on new satellites. A single satellite launch can cost about $50 to $400 million, according to Globalcom Satellite Communications, and DARPA has repeatedly noted that reducing the cost of military space missions is key to its success.

“We’re attempting to essentially increase the return on investment … and try to find a way to really change the economics so that we can lower the cost of military space missions,” he said.

The project has been dubbed the “Phoenix” program after the fabled birds that are reborn from their ashes. So far, DARPA has formed contracts with a few companies to create new technologies to make the project possible. The agency is still accepting technology proposals from companies interested in being part of the groundbreaking research.

The Phoenix project is expected to stay in the preliminary stage until 2016 when the first satellite rescue mission is launched. This mission, which will attempt to revive an antenna from an old satellite, is expected to demonstrate the efficacy of salvaging satellite parts. DARPA has yet to choose which decommissioned satellite the antenna will come from, but they have announced that there are roughly 140 to choose from.

Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist and satellite enthusiast, believes the DARPA’s idea is interesting and could make a big difference in cost in the future.

“The first few times you do this, it’ll definitely be more expensive than just building the new antenna on your satellite from scratch. But in the long run, it might work out,” he said in an email.

According to McDowell, the hardest part of the 2016 Phoenix program test mission will be removing the antenna from the old satellite and getting it to work after attaching it to the new one. With all of the time and money going into the program, DARPA should have enough resources to figure these problems out and be ready for 2016.

Watch the video announcing the program:


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