After initially announcing the Phoenix program in October 2011 the R&D behemoth that is DARPA has more news relating to their Wombles in Space Program. Read the previous Highpants article “The Borg Satellites of DARPA’s Phoenix Program” for further background.
DARPA’s Phoenix program for the uninitiated involves construction of special class of utilitarian satellite that would service, repair and recycle already orbiting satellites. With so much of our modern world reliant on satellites DARPA’s Phoenix program could have huge implications for many industries.
The Phoenix satellites have lofty goals ahead of them. Being able to build new satellites from parts donated by decommissioned space junk is just the beginning. They will need to display a Wombles level of crafty in order to recycle, as well as repair satellites with spare parts from old satellites. Phoenix is an ambitious and audacious plan, all to be executed like a ballet at 20,000 miles high.
The Borg satellites are go, with DARPA planning to have early testing and demonstrations underway by 2015. To achieve this a test subject is being sought. DARPA in early June issued a bid to commercial satellite owners, asking for “a candidate satellite” or donor satellite that will act as a space-based test bed, to be disassembled with an unsteady hand.
Late June saw the agency host an industry conference on sustainable satellite servicing attended by academics, private companies and military experts .
Despite the challenges, DARPA is clearly intent on moving ahead. In fact, the agency last week awarded their first contract under the Phoenix program with $2.5 million going to NovaWurks Inc., a California-based division of Northrop Grumman. “NovaWurks is dedicated to rapid innovation in several areas, including space,” according to company director Talbot Jaeger. NovaWurks were last year involved in the development and testing of Mayflower, an inexpensive micro-satellite that seems akin to DARPA tender satellites.
NovaWurks may well be related to Northups infamous SkunkWurks responsible for development of the SR-71 Blackbird in complete secrecy.
From the DARPA Phoenix program website “The goal of the Phoenix program is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, non-working satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost. Phoenix seeks to demonstrate around-the-clock, globally persistent communication capability for war-fighters more economically, by robotically removing and re-using GEO-based space apertures and antennas from de-commissioned satellites in the graveyard or disposal orbit.”
Much red tape remains to be cut through, space is an international destination after all. With billions of dollars of satellites already in orbit and the still massive costs of launching new satellites DARPA hopes their Phoenix program will revolutionize satellites, turning them into an interchangeable and cheap commodity.