Out of the Geosynchronous Ashes

DARPA has unveiled a program called Phoenix that seeks to utilize valuable, still-useful components from retired satellites in geosynchronous orbit to assemble new spacecraft in space. “If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource,” said DARPA Director Regina Dugan, in the agency’s release. Under Phoenix, DARPA wants to develop the robotic technologies to harvest components such as antennas or solar arrays—with the satellite owners’ consent—from the GEO graveyard orbit using an on-orbit “tender,” or satellite servicing station. The tender would then mate the components with new nanosatellites, or “satlets,” to create functioning new spacecraft at greatly reduced cost. Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager, said that’s no easy task, given that GEO satellites “are not designed to be disassembled or repaired.” DARPA in 2015 would like to harvest an antenna on orbit and assemble a new space system with it, according to the Phoenix webpage.