Thursday, 28 June 2012 11:20
June 28, 2012
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) set out in late 2011 to build a device that could gather decommissioned satellites and recycle their components to be used as new orbiting communications links. Now, the engineering research wing of the Department of Defense is following through with the ambitious project, Popular Science reports.
According to the news source, the program, dubbed "Phoenix," has entered into a new phase, awarding its first contract to Northrop Grumman for $2.5 million. The agency has also set up a summit on sustainable satellite servicing, and is now looking for its first test subject, which it hopes to being work on by 2015.
DARPA hopes Phoenix will efficiently gather dead satellites that are strewn all over earth's orbit. While a number of these dead satellites are at the whim of their orbits having expended all of their propellant, there are several salvageable components, such as antennae. The plan, DARPA says, is to launch a self-operating servicing satellite that uses a broad range of tools that can gather the dead machines and use their still-functioning parts, the media outlet stated.
But gathering the parts is only the first half of the mission. Once DARPA creates such a spacecraft, it will need to develop a way to put the pieces of the satellites back together. This would entail launching several smaller satellites, or "satlets," that would be a barebones version of a fully functioning satellite. They would then be outfitted with the salvaged parts, creating new hardware for the Pentagon to use for increased communication.
According to Wired Magazine, Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force Space Command, stated the program is "definitely ambitious, and some might call it crazy," and added that there would also be several technical problems DARPA will need to overcome.
DARPA said it plans to assess the technical challenges that lie in the way of the plan's actualization by using the test satellite it is currently searching for. The satellite should be "a geosynchronous satellite ending revenue-generating operations" that will allow it to "demonstrate dextrous manipulation robotics." This would include removing an antenna, and proving that the servicing satellite could meet and dock with the test subject, all while in orbit.
The price tag of the project is currently set at $36 million.
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