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.
Love, love, love this idea. Just this weekend, I was up in the mountains of New Hampshire with my family and we were scoping out the meteor showers in the big, big sky. We were noticing all the satellites and got to talking about space junk and how crazy it is that humans not only litter their earth, but now space as well. Leveraging robotics to clean up our mess is a beautiful thing.
Just imagine the wealth of failure analysis information available from recovered satellites! On the one hand this would provide a wealth of information to future builders but it also would justifiably scare the heck out of everyone who ever made a satellite that hasn't yet burned up in re-entry. There's a whole lot of really proprietary information floating around out there. Imagine the US permitting the Russians (and Chinese and Indians and Pakastanis and . . .) to perform detailed failure analysis of technology and software used during the cold-war. All those "weather" satellites with gamma ray detectors and high resolution photographic assemblies. This could start a whole other space-race of countries (and companies) rushing to recover their satellites before anyone else did.
The comments about space junk on some of the stories I wrote on using composites in satellites piqued my interest in the subject, so when I saw this announcement I grabbed it. Rob is right: the idea of recycling has reached beyond Earth's atmosphere.
bob, good point. Since the "junk" is getting recycled in space and not returning to Earth, I wonder if DARPA, or NASA, is considering equipping Phoenix (the tender) with telematics of some kind that can send such data back for analysis. And since Phoenix is aimed at US military comms satellites, maybe DARPA is thinking preemptively about protecting its IP.
What's interesting is the extent of the space junk. There are thousands of pieces, including an astronaut's glove. I'm sure there's a great backstory there. And all of those pieces are tracked so they know when a piece might slam into the space station. One piece came close to the space station not long ago.
There was a marvelous TV show for a short time with Andy Griffith who was a junkyard man who built his own space ship to go and "harvest" the space junk left on the moon. I guess someone finally watched the old show and put a plan together. Kudos to Andy! :-)
The ability to do failure analysis on this reclaimed "junk" should be a no brainer. There would be a wealth of really critical engineering data to be mined that could only help improve future satelittes and other related products.