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DARPA Proposes Ripping Up Dead Satellites To Make New Ones 186

Posted by timothy
from the james-cameron-needs-to-get-on-this dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "DARPA reports that more than $300 billion worth of satellites are in the geosynchronous orbit, many retired due to failure of one component even if 90% of the satellite works just as well as the day it was launched. DARPA's Phoenix program seeks to develop technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components such as antennas or solar arrays from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost. However, satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it's not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts, says David Barnhart. 'This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems.' For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope."
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DARPA Proposes Ripping Up Dead Satellites To Make New Ones

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  • One question (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lennier1 (264730) on Saturday October 22, 2011 @08:44AM (#37803170)

    Would the whole process and those dated components even warrant all those expenses?

  • Re:Makes sense (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ihmhi (1206036) <i_have_mental_health_issues@yahoo.com> on Saturday October 22, 2011 @08:51AM (#37803192)

    I think it would come down to a cost-benefit sort of thing.

    I'm just working my way through my coffee and I haven't had my breakfast yet, so excuse any insanity in the following.

    The best way I could figure one could do this would be to have a robotic "scrap yard" in space - a space station of sorts with storage bays and robotic arms and/or drones that would pull in satellites and have them be disassembled through fly-by-wire. The parts would then be stored in bays and re-assembled.

    I can see a few problems with this, of course. One way or another you're going to have to get the drones/station to the satellites. You're going to have to have *something* pull up next to the satellite and either drag it into a reclamation bay or have the whole reprocessing unit go up right next to it. Moreover you'd have to fuel the reclamation station somehow, meaning the satellite that scraps other satellites would eventually need to be scrapped or refueled itself.

    It might be pretty difficult to actually re-build the stuff in space, too... so another option would be to just collect the junk and return it to earth. But I'd say it takes way more effort to get something back down from orbit than it does to get it back up there. You don't need to give satellites heat shielding because they're not really supposed to return. So if you were to go the "collect parts and bring them back down" route, you'd have to heat-shield everything, not to mention things like parachutes or retro-rockets that would permit to land without smashing into the ground at terminal velocity.

    So... I don't know, this idea seems pretty nuts. I don't think we could do it until we have electrically-powered engines that can be recharged with solar power and a rather large, permanently-manned space station.

  • Re:Orbital Junkyards (Score:5, Interesting)

    by robot256 (1635039) on Saturday October 22, 2011 @09:06AM (#37803250)

    Some satellites are one-offs, but things like the GPS and NOAA constellations have dozens of virtually identical models. And speaking from experience, the space industry is moving (although ever so slowly) toward interchangeable parts to reduce costs. If they knew there were five or ten usable solar arrays for the taking, they could design the interface to accept them as well as a new parts.

    The other interesting thing is that being able to salvage satellite parts would mean they would be less of a sunk cost and more of an investment. If they have a resale value after they are retired, that adds profit motive to the launching company.

  • Re:Orbital Junkyards (Score:4, Interesting)

    by GPSguy (62002) on Saturday October 22, 2011 @09:11AM (#37803280) Homepage

    Beat me to it...

    There's a tendency now to try to use more common components in new satellites, especially for meteorology birds, while there's always new science, adapting existing hardware to do the work means you might get a couple of instruments on different spaceframes, and not cost as much as the gee-whiz one-offs. Someone already mentioned that R&D, testing, SRM&QA and launch services cost a bunch. If we COULD accomplish this, then restoring capabilities on-orbit would be great.

    NASA had a "Flight Telerobotic Servicer" project in the early 90's. Don't know where it went but it did get a fair bit of support and a lot of good engineering talent was pointed at it. From my interactions with DARPA projects in the past, there's a fair chance that something useful will come out of this, even if the whole program is over-ambitious.

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