The military spends a lot of money on building communication satellites and sending them into space. Lots of them are still up there, long after they've failed or become obsolete.
Wouldn't it be neat to recapture and recycle the components, which are often still working, while also getting rid of all that space junk? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) thinks so, and it wants to use robots for the job.
The Phoenix program's goal is the development of technologies that can harvest the components of retired, nonworking geostationary earth orbit (GEO) communication satellites. Reusing those components, such as space apertures, solar arrays, and antennas, would slash the costs of building new ones. It might also speed their replacement, in the military's effort to maintain 24/7 global communication capability for soldiers on the ground.
In the proposed Phoenix program, robotic arms and end effectors can decouple an antenna from its retired military communication satellite and reuse it in a new satellite, saving money, maintaining global coverage, and cleaning up space junk. (Source: DARPA)
Very small satellites, or "satlets," would ride along during commercial satellite launches in a payload orbital delivery system (PODS). Separately, an on-orbit tender, or satellite servicing satellite, will be launched into GEO. When the tender arrives on orbit, the PODS will detach itself from the commercial satellite host and connect with the tender.
The tender will be equipped with robotic grasping arms that will remove a satlet and attach it to, for example, the antenna of a nonfunctioning or decommissioned satellite that it has harvested from the graveyard orbit. The result is a new satellite created in GEO that's ready to be deployed. The robotic arms could also replace parts on, and perform other service tasks for, satellites that are still functional. (Watch the video below showing an artist's depiction of the proposed tender salvaging a retired satellite's still usable antenna.)
Several different technologies are needed for the Phoenix program, and many are still in development. As part of the project's first phase, DARPA has selected Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms to develop two different types of new telerobotic end effector prototypes for satellite rendezvous and docking. End effectors function as the hands of a robot arm, or manipulator. The prototypes will be designed to enable a servicing satellite to dock with and manipulate communications satellites in GEO.
Other robotics-related technologies being developed for the program include industrial robotics and tool changeout mechanisms, as well as remotely operated surgical robotics tools and imaging systems.
@sbkenn: On the subject of plastic contamination in the oceans, Donovan Hohn's book Moby Duck is a fascinating read. He tried to track the journey of 28,800 bath toys that fell off a container ship. I highly recommend it.
I like your plug and play idea, Ralphy Boy. And if that fails, I'd opt for the duct tape. There are very few things duct tape won't fix -- except a leak in a swamp cooler hose, as I found out recently.
I didn't get to see the video yet (at work), but I am wondering how easy or hard it is for parts to be scavenged from one sat and then applied to another.
Even on sats of the same type there could be hardware and alignment issues. We make small changes to print packs all the time. I'd hate to see a bot going from one out of service sat to another searching for a hole/pin alignment match. Or filing out a hole to get a fit... ; )
Also, a lot of things might be potted in place, or otherwise hard to remove. Perhaps a tile knife, some outer space approved duct-tape, and a spool of bailing wire would be a handy addition to the tool box.
On the other hand, if it hasn't already happened... a plug and play, snap in place assembly line-one size fits all design regimen in the future could insure a high rate of retro-booting.
We made 100+ battery packs for a sat network some years back. They were all identical. If some of those are bricks, and other sats have been shut down for other reasons but the batteries might still be good... that might be a worthwhile swap depending on how the 2kg packs were installed.
Cute exercise in Gallilean relativity, but why did you add all those velocities as scalar quantities? Unless thye are all in the same direction, you need to add them vectorially. Still, what's the point? For the space junk problem what counts is the velocity of a piece ralative to a satellite with which it might collide.
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We're talking a look at 10 of the coolest technologies being developed by the US military today. In addition to saving lives on the battlefield, don't be surprised if you see some of these in your daily life some time in the near future.
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