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.
Ann, great article--as usual--great job. This is one subject that really interest me and I certainly applaud DARPA for taking a look. NASA tells us the following about space junk:
The overwhelming number of particles are smaller than one centimeter; i.e., 0.39 inches, but others are of considerable size. Estimates are as follows:
· 1,500 pieces of debris weighing more than 100 Kg or 200 pounds
· 19,000 pieces of debris measuring between 1 to 10 centimeters; 3.9 inches
· An unestimated number of particles, mostly dust and paint "chips" resulting from collisions that have occurred with larger objects also orbiting. Some "guesses" put that number into the millions.
For the most part, the debris can be categorized as follows:
· Jettisoned garbage from manned spacecraft, purposefully disposed of into lower earth orbit
· Lost equipment; i.e. cameras, tools, measuring devices, fabric hold-down straps, nuts, bolts, cotter pins, etc.
· Debris from collisions tearing apart structures either jettisoned or lost
· Rocket boosters that orbit yet remain in space. Some, over time, experience decaying orbits, eventually falling to earth.
With at least fifty nations participating within the space environment, the amount of debris can only lessen but not be eliminated. At the present time, over 20,000 pieces of debris are being tracked by these fifty nations. Let's hope DARPA is successful and we can lessen the expense of space exploration.
I meant floating junk. Space junk could be "kicked" into a decaying orbit to land on a vacant lot in NY ! sorry, I meant N. Canada, Russia, or central Oz. ... somewhere that what little remains could relatively easily be salvaged, rather than dumping even more junk in the sea.
Now that is the best idea of all! We have sunk tons of steel and aluminum, plus who knows how much plastic and even wood that could be salvaged without having to use space-faring technology.
However, space does need to be cleaned up. There is a lot of hazardous material "floating" around up there. I don't want a skylab full of nukes and garbage coming down on my head in the middle of the night. Nor do I want to have a high risk of being smashed by Russian/American/Chinese/European/Iranian/Pakistani/N. Korean/Japanese/Texan flotsam and jetsam if and when I decide to venture into space with my junkyard-built touring rocket. Yes, let's get space cleaned up!
How about cleaning up our oceans. Millions of tonnes of junk have collected in the middle of our oceans. Surely an economical means of collecting this could be found. Much of it, I assume, is plastic which could be recycled.
Adding a dash of relativity... As I sit here at my Chromebook, I'm spinning on the surface of the earth at nearly 0.5 km/s. We are all (including the geosynchronous satellites) orbiting the Sun at 30 km/s, orbiting the center of the Milky Way at 250 km/s, and flitting among our local cluster of galaxies at 300 km/s -- for a grand total velocity of over 580 km/s. I'm not sure how I'm able to keep my coffee from spilling on the keyboard.. =]
The Hollywood motif that comes to my mind is Transformers or more specifically Star Trek: The Motion Picture in which Voyager 6 was repaired by a race of machines to become V'Ger, a machine that grew by assembling salvaged parts into itself. It is also suggested that V'Ger was responsible for creating the race known as the "Borg".
While we develop the use of satellites in the creation of SkyNet, now we have to contend with a DARPA initiative to create the Borg. At least we are not genetically modifying apes... no wait...
Yes, I love that motif. It's one of the fascinating aspects to science fiction movies, the actual science. So I was thrilled when Apollo 13 came out. Here was an exciting science fact movie -- the ultimate Sherlock Ohms.