Space Junk: Robots Could Recycle Debris Into New Satellites, DARPA Says

By: InnovationNewsDaily Staff
Published: 07/25/2012 05:54 PM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily

The U.S. military is moving along with plans to recycle space junk into new, working satellites. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has chosen Honeybee Robotics to develop two types of robotic arms for docking spacecraft to one another while in orbit, the company has announced. 

DARPA is researching how to harvest working antenna, solar arrays and other parts from otherwise broken satellites that are still in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers) above Earth. The military agency wants to build satellite "mechanics" that can go into space, remove working parts from non-working communications satellites, and then transfer the parts onto new, very small satellite base structures that DARPA calls "satlets." 

Such in-space recycling would lower the cost of building new satellites and other space projects, DARPA officials say. In addition to saving money on materials, the satlets could hitch a ride into orbit on other spacecraft, so they would be cheaper to launch than fully equipped satellites. The military is interested in recycling satellites because it wants to maintain 24-hours-a-day communication across the globe, according to the website of the recycling project, called Phoenix. 

For DARPA's plan to work, it needs end effectors — robotic arms and hands — to help the mechanic-like servicing satellites to dock with other satellites and manipulate them. In its new agreement with DARPA, New York City-based Honeybee Robotics will create prototypes of two different end effectors for the mechanic satellites.

"The Phoenix program is an important step towards on-orbit satellite servicing, which has great potential to extend capabilities and satellite lifespan in an affordable way," Jason Herman, Honeybee's director of robotics, said in a statement. "We're proud to support a program this significant to the Department of Defense and the space sector as a whole."

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