Phoenix rising: DARPA’s plan to repair communication satellites in orbit

January 23, 2013

Satellite servicing robot replaces defective electronics in nonworking communication satellite (credit: DARPA)

DARPA’s planned Phoenix program is intended to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) at greatly reduced cost.

Today, when a communication satellite fails, it usually means the expensive prospect of having to launch a brand new replacement communication satellite. Many of the satellites that are obsolete or have failed still have usable antennas, solar arrays, and other components that are expected to last much longer than the life of the satellite, but currently there is no way to re-use them.

The Phoenix program envisions developing a new class of very small “satlets,” similar to nano satellites, which could be sent to the GEO region economically as a “ride along” on a commercial satellite launch, housed in a payload orbital delivery system (PODS).

A separate “tender” (satellite servicing robot) is also expected to be built and launched into GEO. Once the tender arrives on orbit, the PODS would be released from its commercial satellite host to become part of the tender’s “tool belt.”

The tender would be sent to a nonworking satellite to salvage the usable parts, replacing the defective electronics with the satlet and creating a functioning communication satellite.

The first keystone mission of the Phoenix program in 2015 plans to demonstrate harvesting an existing, cooperative, retired satellite aperture, by physically separating it from the host non-working satellite using on-orbit grappling tools controlled remotely from earth. The aperture will then be reconfigured into a “new” free-flying space system and operated independently to demonstrate the concept of space “re-use.”

This video illustrates some of the program’s technical progress since it began in July 2012.  An artist’s simulation of a fully-realized Phoenix demonstration scenario runs in the background to help illustrate how the technology would be applied. Demonstrations include flight-capable robotic arm manipulation with simulated space contact dynamics, tool development for the robotic arm with unique gripping and adhesion capabilities, autonomous robotic control software, and hyperdexterous conformable robot modules in operation, among others.