Launching satellites is a risky proposition—costing as much as $US10,000 a pound to make orbit and little recourse if a critical piece malfunctions. So, DARPA has devised a system to recycle the $US300 billion worth of orbiting dead satellites into a zombie antenna array.
The Phoenix system, as it has been dubbed, consists of a primary Tender/Servicer satellite and multiple smaller mini-satellites called "Satlets." As the plan goes, after the Tender has reached geosynchronous orbit, the Satlets are launched aboard a commercial communications satellite from which the Tender will collect them and store them on-board itself.
The Tender will then transfer to the GEO "graveyard" orbit and begin picking apart dead satellites, focusing on the antennas which are the largest and most expensive pieces to get into orbit. Unfortunately, they're not really designed for easy disassembly. As David Barnhart, DARPA program manager, points out
This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems, since existing joints are usually moulded 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. For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope.
Once the antenna is free the Tender will install a Satlet, which acts as a new controller for the antenna, and guide it into position to create "communications farms" of recycled satellites. "If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource," said DARPA Director, Regina E. Dugan, in a press release.
It's a brilliant idea, if it ever becomes a reality. The Satlets pack only the most essential control systems necessary, eschewing bulkier frames and expensive antennas, which should make them a more affordable option to the current method. Plus, it could help lighten the cover of dead satellites and space junk that's orbiting the planet. [DARPA via DVICE]