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DARPA Looking to Recycle Space Junk

GPS Satellite

In a move that gives a new sense of hope to space exploration exthusiasts, DARPA announced a plan to recycle space junk and derelict satellites for use in military communications networks and other projects, taking the first step towards space-based servicing and repair facilities.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, is looking into the possibility of turning disabled, out-of-commission satellites into new, functioning systems. Barring that, they hope to at least salvage components, such as antennas and solar arrays, for use in new satellite systems.

DARPA is hosting the “Fostering Sustainable Satellite Servicing” conference in Arlington, VA on June 26th. This event will be focused on discussing various legal, technical, and political issues involved in salvaging satellites and their components.

"Reusing existing satellite components may not only dramatically lower the cost of [geosynchronous orbit] satellite missions for Defense Department needs,” says Dave Barnhart, the program manager for DARPA’s Phoenix program, “but may also serve to demonstrate, through advanced techniques and technology, a model for future on-orbit servicing activities.” DARPA’s Phoenix program was established for the same purpose.

Satellites have a finite lifespan, and when they fail they are typically moved into what is known as a “graveyard orbit.” Dead satellites remain in these orbits indefinitely. Many of these satellites still have usable parts and components, however, which is why DARPA is interested in them. The Phoenix program is looking to create two new types of spaceship: small “satlets” that could attach to the antennas of dead satellites and use them to create a working system, and a satellite servicing ship that could be sent up to repair and service dead and dying satellites.

This news is particularly interesting with the recent announcement of Planetary Resources and their asteroid mining plans. In short, Planetary Resources hopes to capture a near-Earth asteroid in the next few years and bring it into an orbit either around the moon or at one of Earth’s lagrangian points. A space-based servicing capability would be greatly beneficial to a space-based mining operation. DARPA’s satellite servicing plans could be the first step to a new industry centered on servicing a burgeoning private-sector space industry.

Source: Information Week

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