Aerospace project to design 'satlets' to update retired satellites

It’s one of the military’s more out-there ideas: resurrecting the out-of-gas and broken machinery tumbling through Earth’s distant satellite graveyard.

NovaWurks, a small aerospace company in Los Alamitos, Calif., will be part of a team trying to do it in three years. The company won a $31 million contract, with options for $12 million more, in October from the deep-pocketed research and development wing of the military, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

NovaWurks will develop the first stage of DARPA’s ambitious Phoenix program, where little satellites, called “satlets,” will be combined with still-functional components from decommissioned satellites. DARPA thinks Phoenix could save millions in costly rocket launches and new components by salvaging parts already in space and plugging them into advanced computers, making whole new satellites, according to the project’s proposal that’s listed online.

Phoenix has attracted plenty of buzz in the industry. Popular Science magazine named it one of this year’s 10 best aerospace innovations.

The Phoenix program will employ NovaWurks’ Hyper-Integrated Satlet along with a number of other innovations. The satlet was developed in Los Alamitos to make space exploration accessible for small businesses, schools, industry and individuals, NovaWurks founder Talbot Jaeger said.

“We believe that space exploration could be affordable to virtually everyone through the use of these smaller, less-expensive spacecraft,” Jaeger said in an email.

Jaeger could only answer a few emailed questions, according to NovaWurks’ publicist, because the military had yet to release a statement on the company’s involvement.

Satellites can’t work forever. Space is a uniquely punishing environment. Even when spacecraft avoid the objects whizzing around, the satellites only carry a limited amount of fuel.

Today it’s common to decommission satellites in what’s called a graveyard orbit, more than 22,000 miles above Earth and out of the way of the satellites that provide GPS coordinates and satellite TV.

DARPA hopes to send NovaWurks’ satlets to the graveyard orbit for a demonstration by 2016. The satlets will ride along on a commercial satellite launch before popping off toward a decommissioned satellite and meeting another Phoenix machine, called a servicer, that has sensitive robotic arms and a tool belt, according to the project proposal.

The arms will cut an antenna free and install one or more satlets, then let the new structure go. This new orbiter can be configured to do lots of things, including communicating with other satlets for larger tasks.

The NovaWurks satlets being installed are adaptable, Jaeger said, “a space vehicle that conforms to the shape and function of the payload, which can be a telescope, a transceiver or some other device.”

A DARPA request for proposals suggested that satlets can serve as proving grounds for newer technology without heavy investment.

“An Apple iPhone … uses internal processing and memory chips that in general are more powerful than today’s satellite computer systems and at a much lower cost point,” the document said.

DARPA estimated in its request for proposals that there’s more than $300 billion in satellite hardware in orbit below the graveyard, a collection that Phoenix could one day turn into a high-end, high-altitude thrift store.

DARPA was formed to produce highly experimental projects like Phoenix after the launch of Sputnik caught the American scientific community by surprise.

Directed by the Pentagon but independent of military operations, the Virginia-based agency invests in cutting-edge research so the U.S. military can take advantage of emerging technologies in any field. For example, the agency announced last month that it’s interested in laboratory-grown batches of red blood cells.

Reports from earlier this year said DARPA would invest about $180 million in the Phoenix program. The agency did not respond to a set of emailed questions about the project.

University of California-Irvine aerospace engineering professor Michael McCarthy said in an email that it makes sense to explore in-orbit salvage operations.

“It is remarkably expensive to get a satellite into space, and it can fail in a variety of ways that leave most all of its components still functional,” McCarthy said.

The technology is coming up against a new problem: Space is far more lawless than land, sea and air, where there are clear rules of engagement between countries.

Phoenix project manager David Barnhart said at a panel discussion Nov. 4 that some of the likely salvage candidates for the 2016 operation would be foreign-owned, and that “there are a lot of questions about ownership and who you need to get permission from,” according to the trade publication SpaceNews.

If the Phoenix system were to approach an active satellite, rather than a deactivated one, it would certainly raise some eyebrows, said space security expert Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy and analysis group.

“We don’t have very detailed rules about how close you can approach someone else’s satellite, when you can touch it, what you can do,” Grego said.


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