Designing New Satellites to Recycle Old Ones
The universe may be vast, but the space immediately around our own planet is littered with thousands of defunct satellites, most of which are either out of fuel or out of power. All of the engineering know-how, advanced materials and launch costs it took to get the satellites into orbit eventually stops delivering data. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has come up with a plan to recycle these satellites and use them to create new space arrays.
There are just under a thousand operational satellites in orbit around Earth, along with nearly 2,000 (or more, according to some estimates) dead ones, including the Vanguard I, launched in 1958 (making it the oldest piece of space junk still in orbit). DARPA’s program, called Phoenix, would involve launching an orbiting robot (the Tender/Servicer) to attach new nano-satellites (satlets) to the antennas on defunct satellites. Once attached, the robot would cut the antenna loose from the rest of the satellite. The antenna/satlet combo would then be placed in orbit.
By repurposing existing equipment, the Department of Defense could save millions by avoiding launching brand new satellites.
DARPA envisions the Tender/Servicer as a three-armed unit that would be able to grip and modify existing satellites, most of which were not meant to be disassembled once in orbit. DARPA hopes to leverage robotic surgery solutions and remote imaging systems used for offshore drilling to help engineer a zero-gravity system.
According to a DARPA press release:
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. “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.
So … it won’t be easy. The fact that robotics engineering technology has advanced enough for DARPA to think it’s possibe is itself a feat. You can see a video about the program below: