The DARPA Tactical Technology Office wants swarms of small spacecraft that would go to space, attach to dead satellites, and use their components to create new working satellites. The idea is fascinating—although it seems too wild to become real anytime soon.
These space foragers are part of DARPA's Phoenix project, a program that would "harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost."
These tiny satellites would scavenge communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth's surface. According to DARPA, dead communication satellites "still have usable antennas, solar arrays and other components which are expected to last much longer than the life of the satellite." Currently, once they die, they just become space trash. So, instead of launching a new satellite to replace the dead bodies, DARPA wants these orbital scavengers to turn them into communication probes for the military.
The Phoenix satellites would be able to either open the dead spacecraft and use some of its components, or just leech on them, using some of its systems, like their parabolic antennas and solar panels.
DARPA also wants to create a payload orbital delivery system (PODS) that will transport these small space leeches to orbit onboard a rocket. The PODS will deploy the satellites and remain in orbit. Once the satellites are done, the PODS will grab them back using robotic arms.
Perhaps Phoenix will end in DARPA's ever-expanding brown paper bag of failed projects. After all, one of the companies that just got a multi-million contract to develop these concepts makes space systems plus edutainment software and furniture. Clearly they are not Lockheed Martin or Boeing.
But, if it works, it will be great news for space. There's a lot of crap up there doing nada. Anything that avoids littering space with yet another car-sized satellite will be good news. [Darpa via Parabolicarc]