The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency produced this video as a status update on the DARPA Phoenix program.


The Phoenix project is developing technologies to harvest valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites for reuse. DARPA seeks to demonstrate the ability to create new space systems onorbit at greatly reduced cost by reusing apertures and antennas from decommissioned satellites in a graveyard or disposal orbit.

The Phoenix project plans to build a robotic satellite tender equipped with mechanical arms and other tools. It would also develop a class of nano satellites which DARPA calls satlets. These satlets would be launched as a rideshare on a commercial mission heading to geosynchronous orbit, using a payload orbital delivery system (PODS) being developed by DARPA. The PODS would be released from its ride-along host and link up with the tender to become part of the tender’s “tool belt.” DARPA hopes to test the system in orbit by 2015.

A related DARPA project, called Galileo (shown below), is developing an advanced ground-based telescope system that can image retired satellites to determine candidates for harvesting.

Current technology for imaging objects in space uses long-baseline interferometers, which connect widely separated telescopes to synthesize huge apertures and capture very-high-resolution images. Current state-of-the-art optical interferometers are limited in viewing angles due to the complex combination of light pipes (up to several hundred feet long), rotated mirrors, and active metrology required to establish an extremely high-precision optical path. Fixed light pipes limit telescope movement to a single axis, so the telescopes rely on movement of the astronomical object to provide the multiple light-phase measurements which are needed.

Current systems are not well suited for quickly imaging objects in geosynchronous orbit where orbital period matches the rotation of the Earth are there is little relative movement. The Galileo project seeks to solve this problem using mobile and flexible fiber-optic cables instead of fixed light pipes.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Galileo interferometer telescope system

Some people have expressed concern that the Phoenix technology being developed by DARPA could be used as an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon. The answer is, of course it could. Any space system that is capable of precise on-orbit maneuvering could potentially be used as an antisatellite weapon. But if Phoenix were to be used as an ASAT weapon, it would be a “clean” weapon. Removing an enemy satellite’s antenna would disable the satellite but would not create a cloud of debris as current hit-to-kill ASATs do. This is part of the natural evolution of weapon systems toward greater precision and lower collateral damage. It is an evolution to be welcomed, not to be feared.

Written by Astro1 on January 25th, 2013 , Military Space

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