DARPA is getting into recycling! After many interesting ideas from various folks about what to do with all the space junk floating around Earth -- a problem and danger to both astronauts and folks down on terra firma -- here is one we can really get behind. DARPA wants to send mini-satellites up into orbit to snag parts off old defunct machinery floating in orbit, and use those parts to build new satellites!
DARPA states, "More than $300 billion worth of satellites are estimated to be in the geosynchronous orbit (GEO—22,000 miles above the earth). Many of these satellites have been retired due to normal end of useful life, obsolescence or failure; yet many still have valuable components, such as antennas, that could last much longer than the life of the satellite. When satellites in GEO “retire,” they are put into a GEO disposal or “graveyard” orbit. That graveyard potentially holds tens to more than a hundred retired satellites that have components that could be repurposed – with the willing knowledge and sanction of the satellite’s owner."
So essentially, we have an orbit worth mining for parts that can help cut the cost on launches of new satellites, and repair those already up there.
The new Phoenix program would create technologies that would allow the harvesting of valuable components from satellites in this graveyard orbit. The program would bring together the best minds to devise small "nanosatellites" that would be cheaper to launch, and that could essentially complete its own construction by latching onto an existing satellite in the graveyard orbit, and using the parts it needs.
“If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource,” said DARPA Director, Regina E. Dugan.
That's the kind of statement that tugs at our treehugging heart strings.
“Satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it’s not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts,” said David Barnhart, DARPA program manager. “This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems, since existing joints are usually molded 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.”
Fast Company reminds us, "This is no easy task... It's an ambitious goal, but if any agency knows how to pull off a stunt like this, it's DARPA."
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