Satellites envelop our world like a web, another kind of world wide web. Proving to be indispensable for communications, scientific exploration and avoiding getting lost when shopping, they have become our eyes and ears in the sky, an essential part of everyday life.
DARPA, America’s greatest research and development organizations has turned it’s attention to space junk and satellites. With such previous contributions to society such as the Internet and GPS satellites DARPA isn’t the sort of company you ignore. Sure they may have their odd flight of fancy, the flying Humvee idea turned a lot of heads, turned heads with curious looks wanting to ask flying what now? Project Phoenix aims to create a new class of satellite, the Borg Satellite.
The Borg or Tender - DARPA’s designation – space robot will be able to disassemble and maintain other satellites. Eventually DARPA hopes the Tender’s will be able build working satellites from various spare parts floating around in GEO – geostationary – orbit. Could the DARPA Borg satellites begin eating other satellites and produce kill-bots to take over the world, possibly but there are a lot of technological hurdles to overcome yet ::::
Floating around at 22,000 miles up are thousands of decommissioned satellites with an estimated value of $300 billion USD. Sometimes they are parked when a part fails or it may just be out of fuel to keep it in proper orbital position. In spite of this there are many fully functional parts on each of these decommissioned satellites. That’s where Project Phoenix comes in, making use of the working parts for repairs and construction, creating a whole new space industry in the process. The other important impact of the Project Phoenix’s Borg satellites is that it changes space rubbish into space resources. Currently all sorts of clever plans are being developed to deal with the space junk problem. Phoenix turns it from a costly problem to a $300 billion dollar resource. The Borg satellites will require ground control, especially for complex dis-assembly and assembly jobs. In essence junk collectors will build up junk yards in space and offer cheap repairs and upgrades for satellites. Could this be the first viable commercial space business? Launching satellites isn’t a space based industry by the way, it is a terrestrial based industry. Or has the 21st century version of Step Toe and Son been born?
The use of standardized off the shelf parts will greatly enhance Phoenix’s abilities, this may signal a point in the satellite industry where it becomes a standardized commercial business. The shift from hand made satellites to standardized modules that are simply put together to perform the desired activity. Solar panels, Antenna, Power Packs and Processor cores are all very similar already, if a few basic things are standardized, plugs and form factors, then parts re-use becomes simple.
While the Phoenix program sounds simple and logical there are many technologies new to space required before it becomes reality. DARPA is actually taking a very sensible approach with Project Phoenix. Many of the technologies that will be ground-braking in space will be taken from leading edge earth based technologies. In order to control the Tender robot satellites Phoenix requires a real time control and vision systems, similar to a video game, for this control and telemetry technology DARP has turned to the technology used by surgical tele-presence robotics. Wireless communications and networking will be based on the latest cell phone tower technology. Remote vision systems will use off-shore oil rig technology. Industrial robotics end effectors and tool change out mechanisms will be used by the Tender robot’s arm and tools.
DARPA’s initial designs for the Phoenix systems involves multiple satellite systems that works together to allow the Phoenix system to repair, upgrade and dis-assemble satellites already in orbit. The main Tender satellite will be launched and stay permanently in space. Containing the basic components such as robotic arms with interchangeable tools, thruster or stabilizing systems along with the complex wireless communications and remote control systems. The other type of satellites required by Project Phoenix are the satlets or nano satellites. Small PODS – payload orbital delivery system - will be designed and delivered to space specifically for each mission, mission specific and delivered as required. For repair jobs and upgrades they will consist of bolt on parts, for decommissioning satellites they may contain special tools to do the job.
DARPA is not the only organization thinking that recycling satellites is a good idea. UC Berkeley astronomer Derek Buzasi has been looking at the space junk as a treasure trove of high tech gadgets. Already the first re-purposing of a decommissioned satellite has occurred, with the working parts of a dead communications satellite converted into an star watching telescope, Buzasi has shown a little creativity is all it takes, even in space.
Traditionally the space industry has made it’s money building and launching new equipment. Its very rare that they will repair a new satellite that fails. In recent history Hubble was the only major repair and upgrade carried out in orbit. Conspiracy theories aside the Satellite industry is ruled by bottom lines, dollars. Its often just cheaper to launch a new fixed version of he satellite rather than send up complex repair equipment that may or may not work. This equation changes if astronauts aren’t required and the repair robotics with spare parts are already in space waiting to go to work.
DARPA will have two information days in November for anyone interested in becoming involved. Project Phoenix aims to demonstrate it’s first satellite re-purposing in 2015, this will demonstrate all of processes and systems working together. By demonstrating a retired system being dis-assembled and reconfiguring it into a new satellite system Project Phoenix will provide more than a proof of concept, they will have demonstrated an entirely new space industry.
Source: DARPA Project Phoenix