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DARPA plans on scrounging parts from dead satellites - while they're still in orbit

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October 23, 2011

A rendering of DARPA's proposed tender satellite, in the process of removing the antenna f...

A rendering of DARPA's proposed tender satellite, in the process of removing the antenna from a defunct satellite

Satellites are very expensive to put into orbit. This is because the parts that they're built from are costly to make, but also because it requires so much energy to lift their considerable weight off the Earth's surface. It would then follow that satellites would cost less if they could use salvaged parts, and if they were lighter when lifting off from the launch pad. That's where DARPA's proposed Phoenix program comes into play. It would see a purpose-built spacecraft removing usable parts from the plethora of "dead" satellites currently in orbit, then leaving those parts for attachment to newly-arriving satellites.

According to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), there are currently over 100 decommissioned satellites in geosynchronous orbit around the earth. Depending on their condition, these spacecraft could contain perfectly usable parts worth a total of as much as US$300 billion - that's a lot of good junk sitting up there. DARPA is particularly interested in retrieving antennas, as these are expensive to make, heavy to put into space, and should still be in good condition.

At the heart of Phoenix would be an unmanned spacecraft known as a "tender," which would be launched into orbit first. It would be followed by a payload orbital delivery system (PODS), which would hitch a ride into orbit with a commercial satellite. The tender would then locate the PODS, and extract from it a number of nanosatellites, or "satlets." It would store these aboard itself, in what is described as its tool belt.

The tender would then proceed into the so-called "graveyard orbit," where satellites are parked once they're no longer useful. It would locate a specific satellite, whose owner had already given permission for it to be salvaged, and attach some of the satlets to its antenna. Remotely-controlled by an Earth-based human operator, it would proceed to use its manipulator arms to remove the antenna - not an easy task, as satellites are not made to be taken apart.

Once the antenna was off, the tender would move it to another area, where it would be parked with the satlets still on board. When a new antenna-less satellite arrived in orbit, the tender would relocate the parked antenna via those satlets, and attach it to the newcomer.

The video below shows how all the steps would come together.

It's an ambitious project, and DARPA is currently seeking partners to help make it a reality. Like a lot of big ideas, however, someone else already thought of something similar ... does anyone remember Salvage-1?

Source: New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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7 Comments

I remember Salvage 1. It was weird to see Andy Griffith doing science fiction.

To take satellites apart without damage, the dismantler satellite would need to have some very flexible manipulators with a wide array of tools and sizes of tools. One big problem would be handling tiny parts like screws and bolts and nuts that aren't made of steel. Steel parts could be handled with electromagnets. Plastic and non-ferrous metal parts would have to be held by grippers or possibly some sort of surface that can have sticky turned on and off.

Gregg Eshelman
24th October, 2011 @ 05:40 pm PDT

It's a great idea - but for it to work it has to be really well planned...... and or really well equipped....

"Got it all apart - ready to put it together - and Ahhhhhhhhh the bastards at the factory used 19/64ths threads at the last minute, and all we have is 17/64ths..."

Mr Stiffy
24th October, 2011 @ 05:48 pm PDT

Ok, I like the idea.

But why not use the Space Station as the "Graveyard". There is a ready crew there, and they could potentially turn the space station profitable.

Or at least less of a money pit.

Plus they could test the parts once taken out of the dead satellite....

And why do they have to ask permission to recover an abandoned satellite? I think salvage laws may work.....

Get Space-X on it. They will have the program up and running in one year......

PrometheusGoneWild.com
24th October, 2011 @ 05:56 pm PDT

Sounds like a coverup story for offensive space weapons to me - nobody's mentioned the scope here - those antique babies are moving at speeds faster than bullets; no way could any salvage machine & fuel weigh less than all the shiny new bits they might need to ship up there. What they're *really* wanting to do is analyze or bug other peoples stuff I'd guess...

christopher
24th October, 2011 @ 06:09 pm PDT

As for the suggestion to use the space station as the 'graveyard' - this is not practical. It is in a completely different orbit than the geosync orbit that the these satellites use.

Interesting idea but there is a lot that could go wrong with even the simplest of salvage operations. It does open up the idea of a new cottage industry.

phydeaux
24th October, 2011 @ 07:49 pm PDT

It is very difficult to tell if a satellite is just out of maneuvering fuel and parked in a safe orbit, or abandoned. The owner might be working on getting it back into service. One act of piracy will keep lawyers busy for the next hundred years.

Any legal department worth having will make sure liability is transferred as a condition of sale.

Any satellite that is salvaged while still in synchronized orbit should be boosted into a different orbit as well to free up the valuable space. (Lunar impact would be nice, both cleaning up orbital space and not endangering people on the ground.)

Slowburn
24th October, 2011 @ 09:38 pm PDT

Just strap on a set of rockets or PAM (Payload Assist Modules) to Wall-E and let him go to work.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WALL-E

I do remember the 1979 T.V. series Salvage 1 starring Andy Griffith.

It was a cool series at the time.

But is it really economically viable , probably not.

Why not just but their ne "moon base" out of the salvage parts already in orbit.

Everyone knows that the expensive part of all that space junk in getting it up there in the first place.

Now all it needs is a "little push" to get it to the moon where there is a little bit of gravity to overcome those other problems like valuable parts floating away or getting hit by micro-meteorites and space dust.

Jim Andrews
16th February, 2012 @ 07:26 pm PST
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