Experts at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are currently making their effort forays into the intricacies of a space program first proposed in 2011. The purpose of the Phoenix endeavor is to service old satellites, or harvest important components from these spacecraft.
According to officials at the agency, the communication satellites that fly around Earth in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) are currently the main focus of Phoenix. These spacecraft are retired from active duty when they, as a system, fail or reach the end of their lifespan.
However, not all systems aboard these vehicles are broken, and some of them are designed to last significantly longer than the lifespan of the satellite. Such components include antennas, solar arrays, and other useful equipment.
At this point, there is no way for satellite manufacturers or operators to reclaim and reuse these devices, since they have no method of getting close to the satellite, of capturing it, and then cannibalizing it for space parts. This is precisely where Phoenix comes in.
In addition to recovery missions, Phoenix spacecraft will also need to demonstrate methods of creating new space systems at greatly reduced cost, by assembling recovered components into new orbital assets.
“Phoenix seeks to demonstrate around-the-clock, globally persistent communication capability for warfighters more economically, by robotically removing and re-using GEO-based space apertures and antennas from decommissioned satellites in the graveyard or disposal orbit,” a DARPA document says.
“The traditional process of designing, developing, building and deploying space technologies is long and expensive. Through Phoenix DARPA seeks to hasten the insertion of emerging technologies into space system development at much lower cost,” agency representatives go on to say.
DARPA underlines that industry participation is a requitement for the success of the program. Even companies that are traditionally not tied with the space sector could provide know-how, materials and techniques that could make the mission easier to complete.
The first Phoenix demonstrator will have to physically separate a satellite aperture from a discarded spacecraft in GEO, Space
reports. This is to be accomplished in 2015, according to current plans.