DARPA's Phoenix -- Satellites Will Need a Donor Card

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Do you have a communications satellite in geostationary orbit that is nearing the end of its life? Then call the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. If your spacecraft has ended its revenue-generating life, but still has a bit of maneuvering fuel left and an RF antenna in good working order, then the weapons boffins at DARPA want to hear from you.

Rather than go quietly to its graveyard orbit, your once-expensive satellite can go out in glory as the guinea-pig for DARPA's Phoenix program, which aims to demonstrate technology to harvest and re-use components from retired GEO satellites to create working spacecraft at much reduced cost.

Concepts: DARPA

"By robotically removing and re-using GEO-based space apertures and antennas from de-commissioned satellites in the graveyard orbit, the Phoenix program hopes to demonstrate unique communications systems at cost points lower than today’s replacement satellite costs," says DARPA. It's a concept of operations the agency believes "may proliferate throughout the space industry, creating a new set of capabilities for the DoD at a reduced cost."

To get the idea off the ground, DARPA wants to do an early demonstration with a cooperating satellite still under positive control in GEO, before it goes on to repurposing operations with cooperative but uncontrolled (no maneuver capability) satellites in graveyard orbit. This will reduce the risk in rendezvous, docking and the "dexterous manipulation" robotics needed to unstick an antenna for reuse.

In the Phoenix concept, a family of "satlets" would then be used to turn the removed and repurposed aperture into a functioning spacecraft. These would include specific capabilities such as attitude control, momentum dumping, station keeping, power and RF operations.

DARPA plans to launch the Phoenix spacecraft in late 2015 or early 2016, and for the demonstration with a candidate partner satellite in GEO to take place over 6-12 months. The agency "anticipates different spacecraft will be compatible with different portions of the Phoenix timeline that spans from early 2015 through 2017."

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