USA funds satellite “rescue” project

The USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is backing a competition which could lead to a satellite servicing and rescue project called Phoenix.

The plan for the Phoenix satellite calls for a space vehicle fitted with a manoeuvrable arm to salvage satellites and components from retired or damaged satellites.  The scheme calls for the satellite to be launched in 2015-16.

The work plan says that the satellite must be capable of removing an antenna from a satellite already in a so-called ‘graveyard’ orbit, so as not to risk collision with working satellites. Phoenix must then refix the component to another DARPA project, its ‘satlet’ device which is a new type of modular craft also under development.

If the salvaged antenna can be switched on by the satlet and transmit a signal to the ground, DARPA will consider the demonstration a success, David Barnhart, DARPA’s Phoenix program manager, said during a recent teleconference, and reported by specialist trade mag Space News.

DARPA is hosting an ‘open day’ at its Arlington, Virginia HQ on February 8th, which it hopes will then lead to a potential suppliers responding to its requirements.

DARPA wants to see a 10-fold reduction in the costs for replacing in-orbit satellites. The overall goal for Phoenix is to offer a dramatically cheaper way to maintain communications satellites. While US military satellites would have first call on the technology it would also be made available for private satellite operators, said Barnhart.

Using NASA-supplied data, DARTA has identified about 140 orbiting satellites which have working antennas and could be used for the experiment.

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