Pentagon's DARPA reveals plans to reuse old satellites

Published: 23 January, 2013, 02:02

Worried about the environmental impact of space debris? Retired satellites that continue to orbit the Earth will soon be reused after the Department of Defense (DoD) sends robotic devices to space to bring the retirees back to life.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced Tuesday that it plans to offer robotic, in-orbit satellite servicing starting in 2015, which would recycle old satellites to provide greater communication capabilities to warfighters from 22,000 miles above the earth.

The project, which the DoD has coined ‘Phoenix’, will take retired satellites that are already in geosynchronous orbit in space and link its antennas to one or more ‘satlets’ that will make them function again. These ‘satlets’, which are often described as ‘miniature satellites’, will merge with the defunct item to create a new, working system. Usually, satellites are expensively built from new materials and sent into orbit at a cost of millions of dollars, but the recycling makes the project more economical.

A single satellite launch can cost about $50 to $400 million, according to Globalcom Satellite Communications. Reusing retired satellites that are already in orbit is complicated, but allows the US government to have more working satellites at a reduced cost. It also reduces the amount of space debris that is permanently in orbit.

“[Phoenix is a] modest effort to increase the return-on-investment for DoD space missions,” Dave Barnhart, a DARPA program manager, said at a press conference.

“If you have the ability to utilize hardware that’s up there, you can do this at a lower cost,” he added.


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