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Friday 24 October 2014

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On Tuesday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the next stage in an ambitious project called Phoenix, which it hopes will bring about the first demonstration of robotic, in-orbit satellite servicing in 2015.

Once there, the goal is to neatly slice off the aperture while avoiding creating additional space debris in the process. That would then be connected to one or more satlets that would handle various functions, like pointing the aperture in the right direction, transmitting data through it, and providing power for the other functions. The exact collection of satlets that get attached will depend on how much the program intends to get out of the aperture.

It’s the latest pet project from the Pentagon’s research wing known for its quirky and sometimes out-there ideas. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending $180 million to test technologies that could make this possible.

Barnhart said that solar panels are also an obvious target, but they may require more specialized hardware to do power conversion, attach wiring, etc.—he told Ars that these added another layer of complexity DARPA chose to avoid for the demonstration mission.

Longer term, however, the program is likely to depend on launch costs going down and the ability to hitch rides for satlets on existing launch schedules. The aperture usually isn’t expensive hardware, and Barnhart said it was only about 2-3 percent of a satellite’s entire mass. By reusing it, however, Barhnart said you can get a larger return on investment for your initial cost and amortize it over a larger number of years. In the end, getting Phoenix to work should save some money.

The DARPA manager suggested the process would be akin to putting spare parts into the repair platform’s toolbelt. Once that was done, the orbital mechanic would move into the graveyard orbit and make its way to a retired satellite (with the full permission of the satellite‘s owner).

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