DARPA looks to robotics to conquer challenge of recycling satellites

The Pentagon's research arm is pushing hard for technology advances that would enable the reusing of satellite hardware in orbit, reports Aviation Week.

The rationale behind the effort is that recycling spacecraft could drastically reduce the cost to the Defense Department of launching new satellites.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Phoenix program wants to demonstrate by 2016 that a robotic vehicle is capable of removing an antenna from a retired spacecraft in graveyard orbit and connecting systems to it to rebuild a functioning communications satellite in geostationary orbit (GEO), the story said.

Although antennas average only two percent to three percent of a communications satellite's mass, the cost of the spacecraft increases in proportion with aperture size, the story said. This in turn drives the size of booster and cost of launch into GEO.

While it can take up to 15 years for fuel reserves to be depleted and solar arrays degraded to the point where a satellite has to be retired, Darpa calculates the antenna structure could last more than a century, the story said.

The agency believes the cost of furnishing satellite communications might be slashed by removing and repurposing an existing antenna by attaching “satlet” modules manufactured at high volume and low cost and launched cheaply and quickly as piggyback payloads on commercial satellites, the story said.

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