Orbiting Junk Yard Begins Recycling Program

There are 1,300 satellites in low-Earth orbit, forming a communications shell around the planet. But only 500 of them are functioning. The rest have been collected and moved out of the way of spacecraft and working satellites and put into an orbiting junk yard.

1,300 Satellites Orbit Earth -- Only 500 Work

1,300 Satellites Orbit Earth — Only 500 Work

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is trying to figure out how to reduce the high cost of launching new satellites by reusing parts from decommissioned satellites still in orbit. This would also reduce the space junk problem or at least keep it from growing. This new satellite recycling program is a few years off, with tests scheduled for 2016.

DARPA program manager Dave Barnhart says, “Today, satellites are not built to be modified or repaired in space.”

The idea is that a robot scavenger would mine the old satellites for working parts including solar arrays, electronics and antennae. They the sat-e robot would attach the recycled parts to a new partial satellite, which DARPA scientists are calling a satlet.

The Phoenix program will raise old, dead satellites from the graveyard and breathe new life into them. But that’s only if the technology needed to accomplish the task isn’t too complicated that it negates the value of the program.

Artist Image of Phoenix Robot Landing on a Satellite to Recycle Parts, Courtesy of DARPA

Artist Image of Phoenix Robot Landing on a Satellite to Recycle Parts, Courtesy of DARPA

In a new video released by DARPA showing the technical progress of the Phoenix program a space robot glides over a satellite, scanning it for usable parts. Then its arms gracefully twist and turn to remove the desired pieces of the old satellite.

That’s the hard part.

Barnhart says, “to enable an architecture that can re-use or re-purpose on-orbit components requires us to create new technologies and new capabilities.”

Because satellites weren’t built to have robots deconstruct their antennae scientists are concerned that may be outside the scope of current robot sensitive touch.

Barnhart says, “Our ultimate goal for the Phoenix program is to increase the return on investment of high value space assets by reusing components from nonfunctioning satellites that have already been placed in space through permission from their owners and techniques and technologies that allow for responsible, transparent, and safe processes and behaviors.”

According to DARPA, The first mission for the Phoenix program will demonstrate “harvesting an existing, cooperative, retired satellite aperture,” by physically separating it from the host non-working satellite using on-orbit grappling tools controlled remotely from earth. The aperture will then be reconfigured into a “new” free-flying space system and operated independently to demonstrate the concept of space “re-use.”

Artist Image of Phoenix Robot Removing an Antenna from a Dead Satellite, Courtesy of DARPA

Artist Image of Phoenix Robot Removing an Antenna from a Dead Satellite, Courtesy of DARPA

In other words, DARPA will start this massive satellite recycling program by removing the antennae from 140 defunct satellites.

Barnhart says, “We have a long way to go, but we are laying the foundation for improving how we build space systems, with the goal of changing the economic model for space operations.”

If successful, the Phoenix program would allow thousands of tons of space junk to be given a second life and it would drastically reduce the cost of launching satellites. Globalcom Satellite Communications says a single satellite launch right now can cost anywhere from $50 million to $400 million.

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