Agency seeks to transform non-functioning Earth-orbiting satellites into refurbished communications systems.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 26, 2012

2 Min Read

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to turn disabled satellites and their components, including antennas and solar arrays, into functioning systems. The agency will host a conference on June 26 to explore ways to create refurbished satellite systems at a fraction of what it would cost to build them from scratch.

DARPA's "Fostering Sustainable Satellite Servicing" conference will be held in Arlington, Va. The event will include discussion of the technical, legal, and policy issues involved in harvesting and reusing components from out-of-commission satellites.

"Reusing existing satellite components may not only dramatically lower the cost of GEO [geosynchronous orbit] satellite missions for Defense Department needs, but may also serve to demonstrate, through advanced techniques and technology, a model for future on-orbit servicing activities," said Dave Barnhart, program manager for DARPA's Phoenix program, which was established for this purpose.

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When a communications satellite fails, it is typically moved into a "graveyard" orbit, where it remains indefinitely. Many of these systems have usable parts with lifespans that are much longer than the satellite itself, according to DARPA. The Phoenix program aims to develop a new class of small "satlets" that could be sent into orbit via a commercial launch and then attached to the antenna of a nonfunctioning satellite to create a working system. A separate orbital "tender," or satellite servicing ship, is also in DARPA's plans.

DARPA first experimented with orbital servicing in 2007 with its Orbital Express mission. The agency aims to refurbish an existing retired satellite using remote-controlled tools in 2015 as a way of demonstrating the feasibility of the concept.

The proliferation of space junk has forced NASA and other organizations to modify the design of the International Space Station and other satellites to protect them from flying debris. Critical components have been moved to a more protected interior location, and exterior cladding has been thickened. Astronauts have had to steer around potential hazards and inspect their craft for damage before reentering the earth's atmosphere.

Space junk has increased to the point where pieces of debris are colliding with each other and breaking up into smaller pieces, according to a report last year from the National Research Council.

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