US to rescue dead satellites

The USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARP) is planning to attempt to rescue parts from retired orbiting satellites as part of its Project Phoenix.  The DARPA scheme calls for a new satellite to be built with a remote-control arm in order to salvage useful components.

DARPA has already identified about 140 satellites and is to narrow this list down to 10. Ideally the target satellite should be in an inclined orbit and not itself spinning too rapidly.

DARPA says it hopes to choose the final list of target satellites by the end of 2014 and then conduct a demonstration of the technology during 2016.

However, there are technical and political problems. First up, the whole exercise has been described as performing orbital surgery at anything up to 25,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Second problem is ownership of the target satellites insofar as some of them will not have been built by US businesses, nor launched by US satellite operators.

DARPA’s David Barnhart, project manager at its Tactical Technology Office, and speaking at a Washington conference, admitted “There are a lot of questions about ownership and who you need to get permission from.”

The conference heard that there are 6000-7000 objects in space for which it would be difficult to determine precise ownership.

As to the practical question of recovery of parts, Barnhart said there would probably be video links as well as ground and space-based radar.  DARPA has been granted $180 million for the project and is seeking another $40 million for 2014 funding.

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