DARPA reportedly working on creating robotic satellite builders

DARPA announces plans for robotic satellite builders.

By Sarah Rich, The Space Reporter
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

DARPA reportedly working on creating robotic satellite builders

New life will soon come to old spacecrafts.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced plans to reuse old satellites parts in new constructions. As with many recycling projects, this one comes with a future net gain. By spending $180 million on this project now, DARPA hopes to reduce costs for new constructions that use the still-functioning old materials in the future.

This repurposing plan is called Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, and it is the first of its kind. Although parts like solar panels and antennas often still function long after the satellites retire, previously only brand-new components were used for spacecrafts. With Phoenix, DARPA will capture and repurpose many parts from old satellites, and with nearly 140 retired satellites on their radar, DARPA’s mission has lots of potential to reuse parts that would otherwise go to waste.

The Phoenix project will break new ground and bring recycling to space.

The plan involves using a robotic mechanic to salvage working parts from the defunct satellites. The robot will go to each retired satellite and carefully extract reuseable parts. In addition, mini-satellites will be launched to create a new communication system, which the robotic mechanic will build by combining the old parts and the new mini-satellites. It’s an immense plan, and DARPA plans to keep project costs low by using available space on commercial rockets to deliver the mini-satellites to the robotic mechanic.

Regarding the groundbreaking Phoenix program, DARPA program manager, David Barnhart told Fox News that they hope the project will find footing economically and that private companies can eventually enter the market.

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

While the upfront costs may be high, this is a long-term plan, according to Jonathan McDowell, Harvard astrophysicist. McDowell told Fox News in an email, “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.”

The plan has already begun, according to the a statement released by the company. Contracts have already been awarded for new technology to help Phoenix, and DARPA continues to receive proposals from more companies interested in the mission. The first test of this project will be in 2016, when DARPA will launch its demonstration mission for a decommissioned antenna’s second life.

The scientists will need to direct the robotic mechanic very carefully during its salvaging mission, as one misstep could break the parts intended for repurposing. As McDowell said, keeping the antenna intact will be the biggest challenge for the upcoming test in 2016.


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