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DARPA Aims to Repurpose Retired Satellites

Agency wants to send mini robots into space to recycle and reuse antennas from more than 1,300 dormant satellites in geostationary orbit above the earth.

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
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The Department of Defense (DOD) wants to create a new satellite and robotic system to repurpose $300 billion worth of retired satellites that are currently sitting in geostationary orbit (GEO) over the earth.

Through its Phoenix program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will award $36 million to contractors to help it reuse some of the more than 1,300 satellites in GEO to create a new communications system for military personnel, according to a broad agency announcement posted on FedBizOpps.gov.

Their position in the GEO makes them prime targets for reuse because the satellites have large radio frequency apertures that can cover large areas of the earth's surface, according to the announcement. The program hopes to send smaller, companion satellites into space to connect with the dormant satellites to reuse the apertures.

[ There is a lot of activity in space. Read NASA Spacecraft Set To Orbit Moon. ]

It won't be an easy task. "Phoenix seeks to demonstrate around-the-clock, globally persistent communication capability for warfighters more economically, by robotically removing and re-using GEO-based space apertures and antennas from decommissioned satellites in the graveyard or disposal orbit," according to the announcement.

To do this, the agency aims to build "satlets" or "nano satellites" that can hitch a ride to the GEO on a commercial satellite launch. In theory, they would then robotically attach to the antenna of a non-operational satellite and create a new space communications system.

The Phoenix program also aims to create a payload orbital delivery system (PODS) to securely send the satlets or nano satellites to the GEO on their missions. These would hook up in space with a separately developed satellite-servicing spacecraft in the GEO to robotically assemble the new communications system in space. New robotic tools such as mechanical arms to do the assembly are also part of the program's vision.

DARPA aims to demonstrate at least one successful aperture repurposing using a robotic spacecraft between 2015 and 2016. Interested parties have until Feb. 6 to respond to the announcement.

DARPA has a number of programs ongoing to make better use of satellites, including one that aims to wirelessly connect a cluster of small satellites so they can communicate as one entity with facilities on the ground.

The agency also aims to make it less expensive to send smaller satellites like the one it will use for the Phoenix program into space autonomously through a new launch system rather than as part of the payload alongside larger satellites.

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