Back in October, we posted about a program DARPA has been working on to rip apart dead satellites and harvest their organs to make new(er) satellites. It seemed more than a little crazy, but the program is now moving forward, with DARPA holding industry conferences and putting down millions of dollars on the idea.
Recycling dead satellites makes a huge amount of sense. By some estimates, there's a third of a trillion dollars worth of sophisticated hardware in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth that's no longer functional. Most of the time, what no longer functional means is that some critical component of a satellite has failed, and since that component can't be fixed, the rest of the satellite is effectively scrap. For example, a satellite might have a software failure in its communications system, rendering it completely useless even if all of the instruments are 100% operational. This isn't just an expensive waste of development time and hardware, it's also a waste of all of the resources that went into getting the thing into orbit in the first place.
What DARPA is looking to do is to launch a big "harvester" satellite, outfitted with lots of robot arms and tools and some artificial intelligence that allows for partial autonomy. On board the harvester will be "satlets," which will be the braaains of the operation, as the harvester goes around to out of commission satellites, strips them for parts like antennas, and staples those parts onto the satlets to form functional new satellites for dirt cheap. Essentially, DARPA will be getting an adaptable new(ish) communications network for next to nothing.
Yesterday, DARPA held an industry forum on this idea to encourage private companies to get involved. Specifically, DARPA wants commercial satellite owners to develop and launch a testbed satellite that's designed to get zombified, with the goal of a demonstration in space by about 2015. The program is now called Phoenix, which is appropriate enough, and a contractor in California has already been awarded $2.5 million to start work on the hardware.
Via Danger Room