UAS & Robotics

Robot repairmen would fix satellites in space

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on a solution that would use robotics to repair satellites in orbit, while also developing new satellite architectures to cut costs.

Initial efforts in DARPA’s Phoenix program so far have fueled optimism. The program recently awarded prime contracts for its second phase, according to a DARPA announcement.

The program looks at developing technologies to create more flexible, scalable and cost-effective space systems. Current development and deployment of satellites takes a considerable amount of time and money – satellites have to survive without repairs for their entire lifespan, driving cost and complexity as creators try to push the envelope in terms of operational life times.

Sometimes the results are good — for instance, a military satellite launched April 4 2014 had been waiting 15 years for the launch because previous satellites ended up surpassing their expected lifespans. But the costs of upgrading and refurbishing the satellite while it waited also drove up costs.

The Phoenix program has achieved promising results, according to the announcement.

“Phase 1 not only showed the feasibility of our robotic tools and assembly techniques, but also validated the concept that we could build new satellites on orbit by physically aggregating satlets in space,” DARPA program manager David Barnhart said. “These successes could eventually lead to the revolutionary ability to create new, truly scalable space systems on orbit at a fraction of current costs.”

The ability to repair and/or refuel orbiting satellites has been a goal of DARPA and NASA for a while. In extreme cases, such as with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, astronauts aboard the space shuttle were able to make repairs. But other satellites are on their own (and even shuttle flights are now off the table).

DARPA has awarded eight companies prime contracts for the second phase:

  • Busek
  • Energid Inc.
  • Honeybee Robotics
  • MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.-Canada
  • MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.-U.S.
  • NovaWurks
  • Oceaneering Inc.
  • Space Systems/Loral

Phase 2 of the Phoenix program will focus on three areas of research.

First, the program is developing space robotics that would assemble, repair and extend the lives of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth. More specifically, the program is looking at mission-specific tools, such as robotic arms, that would be used in a future robotic assembly platform called Servicer/Tender.

The program is also seeking to develop lower Earth orbit satlets – small independent modules that have individual satellite capabilities (power supplies, sensors, propulsion) that can attach together in different combinations to achieve diverse space missions. Their inherent modularity would allow the satlets to be produced on assembly lines at low cost.

Finally, Phoenix is creating a Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) system that would allow satlets and electronics to piggy-back on commercial communications satellites through “hosted payloads.” DARPA is looking at a risk-reduction flight to test the system, paving the way for a low-cost, FedEx-like delivery system to geosynchronous orbit (GEO).

“Individually or together, these technologies could help enable not just Phoenix’s original concept of re-use, but a broad class of other robotically enabled missions at GEO as well,” Barnhart said. “They could help satellites reach new or proper orbits, inspect satellites as part of routine maintenance or troubleshooting efforts, repair or replace worn-out components, or add or upgrade capabilities. These capabilities would enable space systems, for the first time, to have the flexibility, accessibility and resilience that designers of terrestrial systems take for granted.”

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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