Space agencies such as NASA are constantly faced the issue of old satellites decaying in orbit and falling to Earth. Those that don’t stay in orbit around the Earth also create potential collision threats to spacecraft. As a result, many methods are being devised to safely destroy old satellites without causing more space junk and debris. These ideas range from a service station for old satellites to a earth-bound laser system and a solar-powered clean-up spacecraft, however DARPA may have found the perfect solution – a spacecraft that ‘eats’ old satellites and creates new ones.
Dubbed the ‘Phoenix Program’, the scheme would launch an unmanned platform that seizes old, defunct satellites and then recycles them for parts. It could also fix the hundreds of satellites that have had various components fail. Not only would this reduce space junk, but it would save money – it currently costs $10,000 to send a pound of material into space, so your average satellite launch can cost millions. Parts are also expensive, and with the number of broken satellites in orbit estimated at $300 billion, there is a lot of potential for various components to be recycled.
DARPA’s plan would send a harvester satellite called the Phoenix up to collect valuable parts such as antennas, solar panels, and other parts. It would also create ‘zombie satellites’ that would be able to perform useful tasks such as signal relaying. Of course, satellites aren’t the easiest thing to fix on the ground, let alone in orbit with a robot mechanic. David Barnhart, DARPA program manager explains: “Satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it’s not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts.”
“This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems, since existing joints are usually molded or welded. Another challenge is developing new remote operating procedures to hold two parts together so a third robotic ‘hand’ can join them with a third part, such as a fastener, all in zero gravity.”
Does this mean that the military science division will be seizing private satellites willy-nilly? Apparently not – the agency has said they will make sure and get permission from any satellite owner before they cannibalize it. Click here to see an artist rendering of the program.