US military looks for new life for dead satellites

January 22, 2013 by Alicia Chang

It's like doing robotic surgery in zero gravity: Imagine scavenging defunct communication satellites for their valuable parts and recycling them to build new ones for cheap.

It's the latest pet project from the U.S. defense department's research wing, known for its quirky ideas. The is spending $180 million to test technologies that could make this possible.

When satellites retire, certain parts—such as antennas and solar panels—often still work. There's no routine effort to salvage and reuse parts once they're launched into space.

DARPA thinks it can save money by repurposing in orbit.

"We're attempting to essentially increase the return on investment ... and try to find a way to really change the economics so that we can lower the cost" of military , said DARPA program manager David Barnhart.

Work on DARPA's —named after the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes—is already under way. The agency awarded contracts to several companies to develop new technologies, and it is seeking fresh proposals from interested parties next month.

A key test will come in 2016, when it launches a demonstration mission that seeks to breathe new life into an antenna from a yet-to-be-determined decommissioned satellite. DARPA has identified about 140 retired satellites that it can choose from for its first test.

Here's the vision: Launch a robotic mechanic outfitted with a toolkit that can rendezvous with defunct satellites and mine them for parts. The plan also calls for the separate launch of mini-satellites. The robotic mechanic would then string together the mini-satellites and old satellite parts to create a new communication system.

DARPA officials said one way to keep costs down is for the mini-satellites to hitch a ride aboard available space on commercial rockets.

Harvard Jonathan McDowell, who tracks the world's space launches and satellites, called it "an interesting idea" that may reduce costs in the long term.

"The first few times you do this, it'll definitely be more expensive than just building the new antenna on your satellite from scratch. But in the long run, it might work out," he said in an email.

McDowell said the biggest challenge in the upcoming demo test is separating the antenna from the retired satellite without breaking it and then successfully integrating it with the mini-satellites.

DARPA is used to funding out-there research, and a few projects are slowly becoming reality.

In 2011, it dangled seed money to jump-start a way to rocket people to a star within a century in what's known as the 100-year Starship program.

Long before Google tested self-driving cars, DARPA sponsored a robotic road race in which university-designed autonomous cars competed for the finish line without human help.

Explore further: DARPA moving ahead with building zombie Frankensatellites


Related Stories

Synchronized tumbling: how to catch a retired satellite

August 30, 2012

In space, there are no brakes. Active satellites and spacecraft achieve controlled movement with thrusters. Retired satellites, on the other hand, no longer controlled from Earth, tumble in their orbits through space while ...

Recommended for you

NASA telescope studies quirky comet 45P

November 22, 2017

When comet 45P zipped past Earth early in 2017, researchers observing from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, or IRTF, in Hawai'i gave the long-time trekker a thorough astronomical checkup. The results help fill in crucial ...

Uncovering the origins of galaxies' halos

November 21, 2017

Using the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea, researchers have identified 11 dwarf galaxies and two star-containing halos in the outer region of a large spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away from Earth. The findings, published ...

Cassini image mosaic: A farewell to Saturn

November 21, 2017

In a fitting farewell to the planet that had been its home for over 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft took one last, lingering look at Saturn and its splendid rings during the final leg of its journey and snapped a series ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (3) Jan 22, 2013
A definite boon to this endeavor would be making future satellites as modular as possible. easy to unscrew antennae and solar panel arms or even computer cores or batteries.
2 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2013
A definite boon to this endeavor would be making future satellites as modular as possible. easy to unscrew antennae and solar panel arms or even computer cores or batteries

I think the days of stand-alone satellites are numbered, especially in geosynchronous orbits. There are only so many open slots for GO, since they all have to be along the equator and at the same altitude. Eventually we will need to build large modular frames that companies can rent space on. The renters could buy electric power and antena bandwidth from the landlord.
not rated yet Jan 23, 2013
i don't understand why this hasn't been done yet. it seems like a no-brainer to me, especially since everyone has been up in arms about pollution and recycling since i can remeber. if you were a telecom corporation, wouldn't you want to get every last penny out of your satalites? at $100 million apiece it seems pretty obvious to make them in a way so that at least SOME components could be reused. planned obsolescence really only works at the consumer level. at the industrial level, you want your machines to last as long as they possibly can; go ahead, ask a factory owner or a farmer. when a belt breaks they don't burn it all down.
"but its not the same thing."
yes it is. its just more expensive. all the more reason to stretch that dollar, that dime, that penny, that credit chip implant.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.