DARPA Moving Ahead with Building Zombie Frankensatellites

Caption: Phoenix satellite concept. Credit: DARPA

“Alien” meets “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Night of the Living Dead?” Straight from a possible sci-fi/horror movie mashup, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to harvest components from dead, non-working “zombie” satellites to build new ones in space, all done remotely via a grasping, mechanical arm.

The agency would like to have the first keystone mission of what is called the Phoenix Program up and running by 2015, and they recently announced that several companies and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab have won a share of a $36 million contract award to help develop the technology to assemble new satellites from old, dead ones.

This project would harvest larger working parts, such as antennas and solar arrays from satellites that have otherwise have failed and are still in geosynchronous orbit, 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above Earth. DARPA envisions robotically removing and re-using these parts from decommissioned satellites by developing a new class of very small ‘satlets,’ similar to nano satellites, which could “ride along” other commercial satellite launches, greatly reducing launch costs, DARPA says.

The satlets would attach themselves to the antenna or solar array of a non-functional satellite, remove the part and move it to a different orbit where a satellite servicing spacecraft is waiting to robotically operate on and build a new satellite while in orbit. The servicing satellite would be equipped with grasping mechanical arms for removing the satlets and components. These unique space tools are what needs to be developed for the program.

The robotic arms/grappling tools will be controlled remotely from Earth. The pieces will then be reconfigured into a new free-flying space system and operated independently to demonstrate the concept of space re-use.

DARPA is interested in building communication satellites to provide 24-hour communication capabilities for the military.

“Today, when a communication satellite fails, it usually means the expensive prospect of having to launch a brand new replacement communication satellite,” DARPA’s Phoenix Program webpage says. “The goal of the Phoenix program is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost.”

Among the companies that have a share in creating the components needed to make Phoenix a reality are Altius Space Machines, Space Systems/Loral; Intelsat; MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates; Honeybee Robotics; and JPL.

Some of the technology DARPA expects to be built for the Phoenix program include:

Radiation tolerant micro-electronics and memory storage
Industrial robotics end effectors and tool changeout mechanisms and techniques
Computer-assisted medical robotics micro-surgical tele-presence, tools and imaging
Remote imaging/vision technologies

Watch DARPA’s video on the Phoenix Program:

For more information, see the DARPA Phoenix webpage.

15 Replies to “DARPA Moving Ahead with Building Zombie Frankensatellites”

  1. Probably unwise.

    A scientish cover for developing an operational anti-sat capability?

    Not that I am an expert on this.

    1. don’t worry, any spy-sat can simply move a tad, if only just 2 meters, out of arm’s reach.
      Try thinking of the dollar bill being pulled away with a thin line just as someone trying to grab it. One will be laughing, and I don’t think its the one who just wasted 100’s of Mill to bend down and try to grab the dollar.

      1. Yep, waste of money. Sorry, I mean an investment program for needy aerospace industry.

        When I think how hard it is to reuse something here on earth with a shop full of tools (Stuff like: What connectors were used? What’s the pin assignment? What screws were used? How do I disassemble it, without breaking it? How do I adapt the mounting points? And my favorite: A broken device has parts with unknown functional status, so how do I know if the part works at all, or if this part is responsible for frying the device in the first place!), and then when I think of satellites that were definitely *not* build with the design goal “disassembly and reuse in space”, then “profit for the shareholders” is the only goal of this DARPA scheme that comes to my mind.

  2. Genesis of the Borg! Resistance is futile… you will be assimilated.

  3. So, we’re doing away with human jobs again. If there’s a market for this salvaging of parts, why don’t we send manned craft to capture the whole thing, strip it like a chop-shop and give people jobs in space? Could be a rotation of one or two weeks in orbit collecting garbage for a share of salvage value…

    1. The whole point of doing this is to *avoid* having to send more mass to geostationary orbit and thereby avoid the huge expense and waste of resources by reusing the stuff where it already is. Your proposal is instead to send humans along with their bulky life support, supplies, escape system, thermal shielding for reentry and reentry system as well as crew quarters, an air-lock, and several bulky and heavy EVA suits to GEO so that they can bring components back to Earth where they’re not needed and then spend even more money and rocket fuel sending the stuff back up there?

      You’re talking at least a heavy-lift class vehicle and hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment for every “rotation” in order to do a half-assed job cleaning up some space junk in a way that doesn’t even accomplish the primary purpose of this program.
      Not to mention that GEO is outside of much of the magnetosphere, so you’re needlessly risking these astronauts’ lives every time you send them up there.

    2. So basically you are suggestion that additional billions of dollars are spent so that a few humans could be sent up to do the job, billions of dollars that would require maybe a 1000 more people being laid off because of lack of funding.
      Great thinking…

      1. Actually I reckon a new program to send humans all the way out to geostationary orbit and zip to-and-fro between satellites – an audacious project by any measure, perhaps the biggest since the moon landing – would create thousands upon thousands of jobs back here on Earth 🙂

        But yeah it’s stupid to think this robot program won’t create jobs. The robots won’t engineer and operate themselves!

  4. The economy of doing this will hinge on if the fuel difference between hauling up new parts and scavenging old is positive and its cost balances the cost of the parts. As long as they are reusing parts that are relatively cheap (antennas, solar panels) and with wear (solar panel aging), I assume that they can’t actually demonstrate “greatly reducing launch costs”.

    And as long as they intend to leave the old geosats as waste (according to the description, the movie bombs my pc), they won’t do much for the space environment either. Presumably because it is too costly, at least as of yet.

    Of course they should investigate it. But it will be a long way before the DARPA collective has assimilated current technology.

    1. I must confess my skeptometer is in the yellow. It sounds nice, but the big problem is that this Phoenix satellite has to make numerous orbital transfers if it is going to service more than one satellite. That requires fuel, and quite a fair amount if the orbital transfers are significantly non-Hohmann.


      1. The trick ticket with a “Phoenix like mission” to reuse on orbit assets would be to plan mission orbitals to coincide with as many established near orbital tracks as possible – i.e. due to launch site locations and their restrictions on orbital inclinations, several satellites could be reached with only minor orbit adjustments and subsequent expenditure of fuel. Here, we might also consider ion propulsion for orbital adjustments, which of course means there would be long periods in between contacts. BUT those contacts would be worth waiting for and hints that a robotic mission is more reasonable than manned salvage missions. Also, as mentioned in my previous post(s), left over fuel and potentially explosive material must need to be handled with extreme delicacy.

  5. I am just rolling on the floor laughing! ROTFL! You may note that just a couple days ago I made comments about the rejuvenation and re tasking of defunct orbital assets in Jason Major’s article: “Canada Unveils its Contributions to the JWST.” I yam just _loving_ the synchronicity in this!

    I felt somewhat “poo-poo’d” by later comments made by Torbjorn Larsson and Kevin W. Parker.. who pretty much claimed there is no way this could be economically viable. Well…. What do you think now Torbjorn?

    1. In my statements made earlier, i.e. “Canada Unveils…” I also mentioned that the NSA has launched several versions of truss extensible radio dishes and support structures in their ‘hush hush’ missions. Take a closer look at the first image in this article… that’s what I’m talking about.

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