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DARPA's 'Phoenix' Program To Bring Satellites Back From the Dead 88

coondoggie writes "Scientists at DARPA say there are some 1,300 satellites worth over $300B sitting out in Earth's geostationary orbit (GEO) that could be retrofitted or harvested for new communications roles and it designed a program called Phoenix which it says would use a squadron 'satlets' and a larger tender craft to grab out-of-commission satellites and retrofit or retrieve them for parts or reuse." This program incorporates a design challenge aspect, in which various teams compete to design systems to effect the actual capture. From the article: "In the Zero Robotics challenge, three finalist teams emerged from a series of four, one-week qualifying rounds: "y0b0tics!" (Montclair, NJ); "The Catcher in the Skye" (Sparta, NJ); and "Nitro" (Eagleville, PA). Then in June the teams gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to watch via video link as their algorithms were tested on board the ISS, DARPA said. The algorithms were applied across three situations in which the SPHERES satellite simulated an active spacecraft approaching an object tumbling through space. In each scenario, at least one of the teams was able to approach the tumbling target and remain synchronized within the predefined capture region, DARPA said."
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DARPA's 'Phoenix' Program To Bring Satellites Back From the Dead

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  • Finally! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 01, 2012 @06:27PM (#41202085)

    This is probably the first major space age steps we've taken since landing on the moon.

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Saturday September 01, 2012 @06:31PM (#41202113)

    Capturing defunct satellites is easy. Disassembling them, assembling them into a new configuration, validating the work, and then deploying it again is hard. Very hard.

  • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fisted ( 2295862 ) on Saturday September 01, 2012 @06:35PM (#41202141)
    yeah disregard the mars..
  • Re:Cute (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 01, 2012 @07:16PM (#41202353)

    I think the point is that by the time you've put those 1,000 up, another 2,000 will be defunct.
    It's like having a car that only has fuel for a week, an rather than re-fuel, you buy another car.

    In fact, if re-fuelling is a major cause of demise (and consequent loss of correct, useful, orbit) this would be a 'easy' fix, much easier than remote robotic disassembly & reconstruction.


  • Re:1300 dead ones? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cryptizard ( 2629853 ) on Saturday September 01, 2012 @07:23PM (#41202385)
    How is it a wonder? If there were 1300 VW beetles scattered around the globe, what is the chance you would ever wander upon one in your entire life? Earth orbit is a big place.
  • Re:1300 dead ones? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Saturday September 01, 2012 @07:30PM (#41202427) Homepage Journal

    Yes, space is big. But 1300 is just the start, and from my understanding there are 'preferred' paths out into orbit, so i'm sure that a lot of this junk isn't exactly trivial. And unlike hitting one of those beetles and walking away from the accident, you don't get a 2nd chance up there.

  • by iroll ( 717924 ) on Saturday September 01, 2012 @11:00PM (#41203413) Homepage

    Space junk is a problem; defunct satellites are not really.

    The number of defunct satellites is finite, small, and decreases over time. Satellites are big and have predictable orbits. They're not hard to dodge. If you actually wanted to collect them, you could. Satellites are the least dangerous fraction of the space junk.

    The dangerous fraction of the space junk is all of the tiny fragments that have been left behind by, for example, anti-satellite missile tests (lookin' at you, China) among other things (lost bits and pieces, leftovers from stage separations).

    That fraction of the space junk can be further divided into the chunks that we can see and track, and the pieces that are too small to track and don't have known paths. It presents the biggest hazard because you can't always see it, certainly can't always dodge it, and it moves at tens of thousands of km/h relative to other satellites--that's a lot of kinetic energy.

    So yeah, orbital garbage collector sounds sexy, but it's not going to even put a scratch in the actually dangerous part of the space junk cloud.

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Saturday September 01, 2012 @11:05PM (#41203435)

    Capturing withough inflicting damage seems rather hard, a major part of it being the approach + synchronization with the satellite.

    I was not trivializing the task accomplished. I was saying that when you look at the entire project goals, it's amongst the easier. If they simply return to Earth with the satellite, they'll oblitherate most of the cost benefits associated with recycling -- they still have to pay to launch again, and the payload will be used kit, not new. If they do it in orbit, they'll need to basically build a factory in space and mate it to a recycling center. To date, nobody's even attempted large-scale industrial process in orbit. It is a task that dwarfs the challenges of the ISS. We've also learned that things in orbit tend to accumulate fungus, and not a small amount either. There are modules on the ISS that frankly wouldn't meet health code if people lived on them here. When you consider all the obstacles involved in creating a functional assembly line for this kind of thing, and doing it in an economically viable fashion, yes, capturing is the easy part.

    How would it be harder than the normal process of developing and deploying a sat?

    Let me put it in terms you can relate to: If I walk into a recycling center, select twenty dead computers at random, disassemble them, and put them on a table, how many working computers can you make? Oh, each of those computers is 5 to 30 years old. They also contain explosives and occasionally radioactive material. Now realize that computers at least have standards for how they're supposed to fit together.

  • by flyingfsck ( 986395 ) on Sunday September 02, 2012 @12:32AM (#41203749)
    I would guess that many of those 1300 satellites only need some propellant to be able to stabilize themselves and then they will be good to go again. So the first thing to try would be capture and refueling.

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."