It might be cold in outer space, but the place is pretty hot right now, at least in the tech world. So much so that the homerun hitters of tech have decide to start building things out there. Not building things to send to space, but actually building things in space. NASA’s going to use enormous 3D printing spiders to build spacecraft in space. Meanwhile, DARPA, known lately for not building a giant death ray, has the Phoenix program, which recently finished Phase 1 testing.
The purpose of Phoenix is to send robots into outer space with everything they’d need to build satellites. Then have those robots build said satellites. It would be an entire restructuring of how we build satellite fleets. Robots would put together 15-pound modular satellite architecture called satlets. These would contain a power supply, controls and sensors, all in a Payload Orbital Delivery, which is a fancy name for a pod that'll be shot into outer space.
During Phase 1, it was proven that this idea will work, and it could change the way our space programs are run. But what’s the point, exactly? You’re still shooting things into space, so isn’t it six or one half dozen the other? The answer to my own question is a resounding NO. It’s far cheaper to shoot out satlets. It would cut down on the developmental lead-time and they’ll be repairable or upgradable while they orbit around the earth. Currently, satellites are basically unreachable, so you shoot ‘em up there, and you’re stuck with what you’ve got.
According to David Barnhart, DARPA program manager, Phoenix “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.”
Phase 2 involves actually building these guys, and DARPA’s given out eight contracts thus far, most notably to Buskek, Honeybee Robtics and Oceaneering.