The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to refurbish older satellites that are still in orbit. Satellites that cannot be upgraded would be harvested for recycling rather than letting them burn up in reentry.
Even though a satellite may have outlived its usefulness it may still contain usable parts, such as solar panels, transmitters and other items that can be retrofitted onto newer satellites. Now DARPA says they have a plan that entails creating or fixing older satellites while still in orbit by means of a ground-controlled, robotic mechanic that will remain in orbit indefinitely.
Very soon DARPA will be testing some robotic devices to be launched in space that can be commanded to disassemble or refurbish older satellites. They are calling it the 'Phoenix Program', and the proposal will cost U.S. taxpayers around 180 million dollars, and that is just to test it all.
"We're attempting to essentially increase the return on investment,” said DARPA program manager, David Barnhart. Barnhart stressed that the government is seeking ways in which to “change the economics” of satellites so that manufacturing costs will be far less expensive. The agency says that they will be looking at any proposals from interested technologies in February of this year as well.
The first test of the project will come in 2016 when they will retrieve a non-working or decommissioned satellite while still in orbit. Currently, there are approximately 140 retired U.S. satellites still in orbit with usable electronics and solar technologies that DARPA has their eye on.
The final project phase, if approved, would be to launch a robotic mechanic that will disassemble the satellites for their parts or make needed upgrades or repairs. DARPA also wants to launch a string of mini-satellites in orbit where the robot would assemble them together, with the older retrieved parts, to create a new working satellite.
DARPA is well known for their strange ideas that draw a lot of attention, such as creating mind controlled artificial limbs; laser guided bullets or even a flying “submarine.” In 2011 they helped kick start the 100-year Starship program, which is a means of making interstellar travel possible in the next 100 years.
Image Source: DARPA Phoenix Program's Youtube Channel