DARPA moving ahead with building zombie Frankensatellites

Jul 27, 2012 By Nancy Atkinson, Universe Today
Caption: Phoenix satellite concept. Credit: DARPA

“Alien” meets “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Night of the Living Dead?” Straight from a possible sci-fi/horror movie mashup, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to harvest components from dead, non-working “zombie” satellites to build new ones in space, all done remotely via a grasping, mechanical arm.

The agency would like to have the first keystone mission of what is called the Phoenix Program up and running by 2015, and they recently announced that several companies and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab have won a share of a $36 million contract award to help develop the technology to assemble new satellites from old, dead ones.

This project would harvest larger working parts, such as antennas and solar arrays from satellites that have otherwise have failed and are still in geosynchronous orbit, 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above Earth. DARPA envisions robotically removing and re-using these parts from decommissioned satellites by developing a new class of very small ‘satlets,’ similar to nano satellites, which could “ride along” other commercial satellite launches, greatly reducing launch costs, DARPA says.

The satlets would attach themselves to the antenna or solar array of a non-functional satellite, remove the part and move it to a different orbit where a satellite servicing spacecraft is waiting to robotically operate on and build a new satellite while in orbit. The servicing satellite would be equipped with grasping mechanical arms for removing the satlets and components. These unique space tools are what needs to be developed for the program.

The robotic arms/grappling tools will be controlled remotely from Earth. The pieces will then be reconfigured into a new free-flying space system and operated independently to demonstrate the concept of space re-use.

DARPA is interested in building communication satellites to provide 24-hour communication capabilities for the military.

“Today, when a communication satellite fails, it usually means the expensive prospect of having to launch a brand new replacement communication ,” DARPA’s Phoenix Program webpage says. “The goal of the Phoenix program is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively 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.”

Among the companies that have a share in creating the components needed to make Phoenix a reality are Altius Space Machines, Systems/Loral; Intelsat; MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates; Honeybee Robotics; and JPL.

Some of the technology DARPA expects to be built for the Phoenix program include:

• Radiation tolerant micro-electronics and memory storage

• Industrial robotics end effectors and tool changeout mechanisms and techniques

• Computer-assisted medical robotics micro-surgical tele-presence, tools and imaging

• Remote imaging/vision technologies

Watch ’s video on the Phoenix Program:

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.


Explore further: SpaceX will try again Fri. to launch station cargo

More information: For more information, see the DARPA Phoenix webpage. www.darpa.mil/our_work/tto/programs/phoenix.aspx

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User comments : 19

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El_Nose
2.7 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
Lets be honest, China made the military think abou thow much it depends on satellites when it blasted one out of orbit. If the US or its allies ever have to go against a non-dessert country, one that is technologically advanced, one that might actually be able to wage war ( China ) then the threat of that nation disabling communications and not being able to adequately restore them quickly .. within 24-72 hours, leads to the very real fear that a war of attrition where there will be no winner is the only outcome.

China has no navy worth mentioning, they have no ideas of expanding, or trying to intervene in other countries affairs... but they can protect themselves like non other.

Before they built a wall - now they can make you go blind,deaf,and dumb by disabling your entire communication network and sending you back to radio/short wave/and long wave.

How do you fight that?

Build a satelitte repair platform in space.
Nydoc
5 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
It would be more difficult for China to hit a geo-stationary satellite with a laser than the LEO sat they destroyed. Also, the US has demonstrated anti-sat capability, so China is susceptible to the same sort of attack.
Modernmystic
1.8 / 5 (4) Jul 27, 2012
It would be more difficult for China to hit a geo-stationary satellite with a laser than the LEO sat they destroyed.


More difficult, but not much more...

Also, the US has demonstrated anti-sat capability, so China is susceptible to the same sort of attack.


They aren't dependent on sats like we are. Granted it gives us a huge advantage, but it's also a huge weak spot too unless we invest heavily in redundant systems.

The only thing we could do which would inflict a similar effect on the current technologies they're using is to EMP them with nukes.

All that said if we ever did get into a military conflict with China...contrary to popular belief...it would be no contest. We'd have complete air superiority within a few days and effectively control the major population centers within a month or two...
Lurker2358
1.7 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
How do you fight that?

Build a satelitte repair platform in space.


I think there is a treaty not to put nukes in space, but to my knowledge there is no specific treaty to not put LASERS in space, although there seems to be an automatic "understood no" in order to prevent a new cold war; Russia has threatened to develop a new form of delivery system (presumably low flying stealth cruise missiles capable of delivering 20 megaton Plus warheads, instead of traditional ICBMs) if the U.S. and E.U. installs laser defense systems in Europe or along our west coast.

At any rate, a COIL or THEL laser placed in orbit, and using some sort of solar recharging system, could shoot down scores of missiles even military aircraft or small marine vessels during it's lifetime.

We already have these machines fully functional, and if a war was forced, we also have rockets large enough and cheap enough to launch them, as well as the components to add a solar recharger to the system, in theory.
GSwift7
3.3 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
How do you fight that?

Build a satelitte repair platform in space.


Or maybe use something like the x37 to deploy stealth satellites. I'm sure they are already working on a solution, if they don't already have one. As you correctly point out, satellites are too easy of a target to just sit back and not have a backup plan. Building a stealth aircraft is much more difficult than building a stealth satellite, since you can make a satellite any shape you want. Heck, only the bottom side of the satellite would need to be stealth really.
Lurker2358
1.7 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
We are also a couple decades ahead of China in military grade laser and rail gun technology, which are about to become standard weapons compliment on all of our naval assets. We already use some of these systems in addition to the conventional anti-air and anti-missile systems, as well as smaller laser systems for dismantling roadside bombs, such as IEDs or mis-fired artillery rounds.

Nevertheless, China's technology and numbers is far greater than Lybia, for example, and I'm sure we'd suffer some casualties initially even in a conventional warfare setting.

still, I think we'd control their coastlines to perhaps 200 miles inland totally within a week or two, if an open war was to happen.

Land invasion is useless in this scenario and only increases the number of casualties on both sides. What you want to do is just sit on your naval and air assets and bomb all military and industrial facilities for weeks on end until everyone just gives up. Infantry is not needed and not helpful.
GSwift7
4.2 / 5 (6) Jul 27, 2012
It would be more difficult for China to hit a geo-stationary satellite with a laser than the LEO sat they destroyed


They used a missile.

All that said if we ever did get into a military conflict with China...contrary to popular belief...it would be no contest.


China and the US are too closely dependent on one another for a war. If China attacked us, it would hurt them too much. They have way too much trade and investment here. They would suffer crippling economic damage before the fighting even begins, not to mention food. In today's world, I don't think a war between any major powers is likely. Maybe something like Viet Nam, where it's a war in a third world country, with each side backed by one of the superpowers, but I can't see invading China or them wanting to invade the US. Maybe the Philippines?
Lurker2358
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2012
GSwift:

Neither Russia nor the U.S. wants a piece of one another. In fact, the Russians are currently allowing U.S. troops and supply lines to pass through their lands to get to Afghanistan and Pakistan!

A few years back when Russia invaded one of their former satellite nations, I think Georgia or the Ukraine or some such, the U.S. strongly condemnd and urged to stop the fighting, but we sure as hell didn't want to start any kind of conflict or hurt diplomatic relations. Any war between Russia and the U.S. would be bad for everyone, even if no WMD ever got deployed. The Casualties on both sides would be unlike anything seen since WW2, even with Russia's weakened economic status. The military commanders are still scared to death of one another, and maybe that's a good thing...
GSwift7
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 27, 2012
Neither Russia nor the U.S. wants a piece of one another. In fact, the Russians are currently allowing U.S. troops and supply lines to pass through their lands to get to Afghanistan and Pakistan!


The US Airforce has been under contract to help maintain the Russian nuclear arsenal since the breakup of the USSR. I don't think they want to fight us any more than China. The superpowers are more likely to sue eachother than fight a war.
GDM
not rated yet Jul 27, 2012
"Weapons of mass destruction" are banned in space...now try to define that to the lawyers. Example: high power lasers being used for propulsion, broadband transmissions, power transmission, whatever.
Hitting a low orbit satellite is "easy". Unfortunately, they are not "bown out of orbit", but scatter thousands of smaller bits of debris in just about every direction. Only some of falls to Earth quickly. The remains of the Chinese satellite are still up there, spreading out and causing trouble that will last for years. Don't know much about the US one that got shot. We know more about the Chinese than we do about our own military practices.
The article is actually about salvaging broken sats for their parts, which is a very good thing, IMHO. Even better would be to privatize this.
lbuz
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 27, 2012
The overlooked item of true interest here is the on-orbit re-use of defunct or abandoned hardware using modular robotic techniques. Step for a moment out of power politics and national superiority and into the realm of practical economical exploitation of in situ orbital resources, in this case mad made 'junk'. What is really being developed here is, if you will, true extra-terrestrial manufacturing capability based on a modular system that can be scaled up to significant proportions by replicating a small number of relatively simple modules, once the designs are refined. Whatever the present shape of geo-politics, the enduring significance to my mind is the immanent establishment of a functional infrastructure for off planet industry and, inevitably, human occupation. In the long run this is about enhancing human capabilities and scope of action, for good and for ill, like fire.
alfie_null
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2012
In the future, perhaps, satellite designs could be more modular. Up to and including habitable satellites. Rather than launching complete satellites, we would launch a bunch of lego-like components, that would be assembled in orbit. Lots of redundant components, and possibilities for post-launch reconfiguration.

I imagine it is a challenge, figuring out how best to reuse these existing never-designed-for-disassembly satellites.
antialias_physorg
4.8 / 5 (4) Jul 28, 2012
The problem with reuse is not so much design. Satellites are expensive to launch so you cram the best technology in there available at the time (the cost of the components is nearly insignificant compared to launch costs). After 5-10 years of useful lifetime the technology in a, then, dysfunctional satellite is obsolete. There's really no point in reusing most of it because such a Franken-satellite would be an order less efficient than the newest generation of satellite (and quite possibly the newest satellite will need to incorporate functionality for which there aren't ANY parts on board the old one)
SatanLover
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2012
The problem with reuse is not so much design. Satellites are expensive to launch so you cram the best technology in there available at the time (the cost of the components is nearly insignificant compared to launch costs). After 5-10 years of useful lifetime the technology in a, then, dysfunctional satellite is obsolete. There's really no point in reusing most of it because such a Franken-satellite would be an order less efficient than the newest generation of satellite (and quite possibly the newest satellite will need to incorporate functionality for which there aren't ANY parts on board the old one)


good point, however it can still be very useful to have another older satelite for something. you dont always need the latest tech to do a job.
lbuz
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2012
We can think more broadly regarding the utility of orbital 'debris' than the 'frankensatteite' meme. The primary utlility lies in the fact that is IS orbital, launch costs have already been amortized. The trick is to view this as a bank of highly refined engineered materials that can be re-purposed, reprocesed and reused for whatever function is required. In short what is needed is an orbital reprocessing facility utilizing perhaps, additive manufacturing technologies such as laser powder sintering to build, for instance, the counterweight end of a space elevator tether, telescope parts, etc.
SatanLover
1 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2012
ugg space elevator again? please drop that shit already.
lbuz
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 28, 2012
OK then, no space elevator talk ever again, it has been decreed by those who KNOW the future! What a relief to be guided by the wise.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 29, 2012
Since it is funded by DARPA, I'll go out on a limb here and guess that this is project that could be 'accidentally' used to scoop up still very much functional (spy, GLONASS, etc. ) satellites.

Such a scoop satellite would be a neat way of flying under the radar of the treaty against the weaponizing of space...because, hey, it doesn't look like a weapon, right?
GSwift7
1 / 5 (1) Jul 30, 2012
Since it is funded by DARPA, I'll go out on a limb here and guess that this is project that could be 'accidentally' used to scoop up still very much functional (spy, GLONASS, etc. ) satellites.

Such a scoop satellite would be a neat way of flying under the radar of the treaty against the weaponizing of space...because, hey, it doesn't look like a weapon, right?


The fact that it is DARPA is interesting. I sometimes marvel at what DARPA decides to release to the public, since they have absolute descretion over what they make public and what they keep under thier hat. There's no absolute pattern to DARPA processes, but in many cases the projects that get public disclosure are merely technology demonstration programs. The story above doesn't name this as such, but I strongly suspect that this is merely a tech demo, to explore pheasability. If it ever becomes a fully functional system deployment, you're not likely to hear about it. Some projects go dark multiple times on & off

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