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DARPA Proposes Ripping Up Dead Satellites To Make New Ones

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the james-cameron-needs-to-get-on-this dept.

Space 186

Hugh Pickens writes "DARPA reports that more than $300 billion worth of satellites are in the geosynchronous orbit, many retired due to failure of one component even if 90% of the satellite works just as well as the day it was launched. DARPA's Phoenix program seeks to develop technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components such as antennas or solar arrays from retired, nonworking satellites in GEO and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost. However, satellites in GEO are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it's not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts, says David Barnhart. 'This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut, and modify complex systems.' For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope."

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186 comments

Makes sense (1)

Fluffeh (1273756) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803140)

This sounds like one of those brilliant ideas on paper, but one that will prove infinitely harder in reality. Re-use satelites, great idea, good luck doing it though.

Re:Makes sense (3, Interesting)

Ihmhi (1206036) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803192)

I think it would come down to a cost-benefit sort of thing.

I'm just working my way through my coffee and I haven't had my breakfast yet, so excuse any insanity in the following.

The best way I could figure one could do this would be to have a robotic "scrap yard" in space - a space station of sorts with storage bays and robotic arms and/or drones that would pull in satellites and have them be disassembled through fly-by-wire. The parts would then be stored in bays and re-assembled.

I can see a few problems with this, of course. One way or another you're going to have to get the drones/station to the satellites. You're going to have to have *something* pull up next to the satellite and either drag it into a reclamation bay or have the whole reprocessing unit go up right next to it. Moreover you'd have to fuel the reclamation station somehow, meaning the satellite that scraps other satellites would eventually need to be scrapped or refueled itself.

It might be pretty difficult to actually re-build the stuff in space, too... so another option would be to just collect the junk and return it to earth. But I'd say it takes way more effort to get something back down from orbit than it does to get it back up there. You don't need to give satellites heat shielding because they're not really supposed to return. So if you were to go the "collect parts and bring them back down" route, you'd have to heat-shield everything, not to mention things like parachutes or retro-rockets that would permit to land without smashing into the ground at terminal velocity.

So... I don't know, this idea seems pretty nuts. I don't think we could do it until we have electrically-powered engines that can be recharged with solar power and a rather large, permanently-manned space station.

Re:Makes sense (1)

maeka (518272) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803238)

One way or another you're going to have to get the drones/station to the satellites. You're going to have to have *something* pull up next to the satellite and either drag it into a reclamation bay or have the whole reprocessing unit go up right next to it

Except that moving the birds from their widely differing orbits is a major expense.

I don't think we could do it until we have electrically-powered engines that can be recharged with solar power and a rather large, permanently-manned space station.

Ion drives exist. But like all things in life there is a tradeoff. Engines which don't hurl much mass don't produce much thrust. Engines which hurl lots of mass require lots of propellent, be it electrically accelerated propellant or chemically accelerated propellant.

Re:Makes sense (1)

EdZ (755139) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803700)

Except that moving the birds from their widely differing orbits is a major expense.

Not really. A lot of the valuable satellites will be in GEO or the geostationary graveyard orbits. Moving them around takes very little energy.

Re:Makes sense (1)

zippthorne (748122) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803752)

Thrust is only critical when you're trying to get off a planet. If you're already in orbit, you don't care about thrust as much as Isp, which translates to your delta-v budget...

That said, this sounds like a pretty stupid idea. The expense of getting the robot miner/factory to the retired satellite is as much as putting a whole new satellite in place, one produced using the full resources of planet-bound manufacturing, not some ad-hock remote-controlled business, and I strongly suspect that each robot would have to be specifically tailored to modify each existing satellite...

The most valuable resource a retired GEO satellite has is not the stuff in the satellite, but the position it occupies. The best solution is to build an attachable thruster as a secondary payload, and use it to nudge the satellite into interplanetary orbit so the new satellite can take it's place....

Re:Makes sense (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805142)

The most valuable resource a retired GEO satellite has is not the stuff in the satellite, but the position it occupies. The best solution is to build an attachable thruster as a secondary payload, and use it to nudge the satellite into interplanetary orbit so the new satellite can take it's place....

Exactly. Where are my mod points when I need them!!

The physical material in the satellite costs a few dollars. The rest of the cost is the cost of employment of large numbers of highly paid technicians on earth. As such any savings in trying to repair these things is elusive at best, and, given the nature of government programs probably impossible.

Better DARPA should invent cheap technology packages that can be launched by the hundreds latch onto or snag these dead birds and de-orbit them freeing their slot in GEO, and preventing them from joining the the ever growing space junk yard. Just a small tug that would set them on a slow path toward re-entry and burn up.

Re:Makes sense (1)

Intropy (2009018) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805320)

The physical materials are cheap, but the fuel required to orbit them is not. There is some value in the "real estate" as you say, but if you just move the existing satellites out of the way to make room for new ones launched from Earth, you still have to pay to get all that mass into orbit. If you can reuse some of that mass, then you can save a lot of fuel.

Re:Makes sense (1)

HiThere (15173) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804992)

Why would they be in a hurry?

If it goes a little faster, it will move to a slightly higher orbit, and rotate more slowly. Wait for the place you're aiming for to catch up. Slow down, to move as fast as it does. You'll probably need tethers to do the final orbital adjustment, but by then your speed difference should be in the inches/minute range. (The tether is because it's quite difficult to exactly align in position and velocity in all three dimensions. But you want to get really close before you touch. Think of it as a flexible docking collar, without the air seal.)

This seems like a perfect job for an ion rocket. It's close enough to the sun to use solar power. There's no rush. And things are not only in a stable position already, they'll stay in stable positions along the entire trajectory. You would, however, want to use an advanced model that can operate without special fuels. (Use a laser to evaporate some of the metal from the thing you're moving, and accelerate that as your exhaust. Probably hasn't been built yet, because this is a new situation, but it's a pretty straight-forward adaptation of the current models. Think of it as a nano-scale mass-driver.)

Re:Makes sense (1)

hairyfeet (841228) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805638)

I don't think so, after all nobody is saying "you gotta get that part TODAY Johnson!" are they? you could use one of those Russian Hall Effect thruster [wikipedia.org] which IIRC are pretty power efficient for their size, then as the other poster said have a 'scrap yard" where drones take them apart.

But IMHO if they are gonna do that then we are gonna need to get together with the other sat producing countries and work on a modular design for future birds. that would make this MUCH easier to do and while i'm sure that with the right design even the dead birds already up there could be stripped with modular designs it could be a hell of a lot easier.

Personally i'm all for it. anything that will cut down on the clutter up there while getting real use out of what was once junk is a great idea in my book. if this works we then need to focus on "clearing the neighborhood" of all the bits and pieces that have been piling up since the 1950s. Has anybody seen the picture [theglobale...roject.org] of just the crap we're tracking? its towards the bottom half of the page. I didn't know until i landed on this we have 13 reactor cores and 32 nuclear generators in orbits below 1700km. we REALLY need to be cleaning this mess up!

Re:Makes sense (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803272)

The ideal position for such a station would IMHO be an orbit a bit above or below the geostationary one. Such a station would be a bit faster (or a bit slower) than the geostationary ones, and thus would regularly come relatively close to each one. It would also save fuel for the "harvesting module": Only a relatively minor orbit change would be needed; basically a short thrust for getting from the circular orbit into an elliptical one whose apogee (or perigee for the outer "service orbit") is in the geostationary orbit and is reached exactly at the position of the satellite. There it grabs the satellite, does another short thrust to correct the orbit (which is changed by the addition of the satellite; also you want to get back to the station, not just to the same orbit), and thus returns to the station where the satellite is recycled.

The refueling is indeed a big problem. Thrusting always involves emitting matter, and therefore even if your energy if 100% solar electric, you still will eventually have to refuel (unless you manage to build an ultra-powerful laser of ultra-low mass -- and don't fear the risk of accidentally directing it to earth or to another satellite :-))

Re:Makes sense (2)

Rakishi (759894) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804052)

You are describing having two satellites traveling at different velocity impact each other without utterly destroying either fragile device. Just because two satellites are in the same location at the same time does not mean one can realistically "grab" the other.

Return to Earth ? (1)

Latinhypercube (935707) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805614)

Return to Earth ? Are you a fucking retard ? Did you miss the whole fucking point ?

Re:Makes sense (2)

SimonTheSoundMan (1012395) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803262)

For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Lego at the same time while looking through a telescope

Sounds like brain surgery to me, not quite rocket science then. Shouldn't be too hard.

Re:Makes sense (2)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803296)

Well, If I had to decide between flying with a rocket built by a self-taught rocket scientist and having my brain operated on by a self-taught brain surgeon, I think I'd take the rocket flight.

Re:Makes sense (2, Insightful)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803350)

I think the lego analogy is oversimplified. They should have said it would be like building your own telvision via remote control while looking through a telescope. Legos "just fit". Diodes, resistors, etc, don't just snap together - and neither will all those parts form satellites launched by different companies, for different purposes, over the span of a few decades. Almost nothing is going to "just fit".

Re:Makes sense (2)

hedwards (940851) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803370)

That was in line with my thoughts. If the devices were designed to snap out the fuel cells and reprogram the onboard logic, it could probably be made to work, at least for satellites of a similar type, but going much further than that would require technology which we don't yet have.

There's also the issue of these satellites being owned by somebody, even though they are still in orbit and unusable at the moment.

Re:Makes sense (2)

tibit (1762298) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803458)

Presumably a lot of military hardware uses a couple common satellite buses, so the parts could perhaps be interchangeable. I think that reusing across dissimilar craft is a pipe dream for now.

Re:Makes sense (1)

TFAFalcon (1839122) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804758)

Ownership can be easily resolved.

Start charging 'rent' for satellite positions in orbit. You can bet companies will start begging people to take their broken hardware.

Re:Makes sense (1)

Lifix (791281) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805276)

Huh... rent? So the US should charge the rest of the world 'rent' to use 'space?' please explain what you mean.

Re:Makes sense (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804896)

For a person operating such robotics, the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple Lego at the same time while looking through a telescope

Sounds like brain surgery to me, not quite rocket science then. Shouldn't be too hard.

The round-trip signal delay might also prove a problem for someone operating a remote gripper or performing some delicate real-time operation. You're going to need some serious AI on-board to handle most things, I think: the human operator would just issue directives and the local intelligence would get the job done. Eventually, as the software develops, you won't need the human.

This isn't exactly a trivial proposition: they'd probably have to spend a good chunk of that $300 billion getting this to work. Of course, having that kind of near-space technology would be absolutely invaluable. The idea of having satellites whose only job is to zip around repairing and/or salvaging other satellites is very appealing, and would make satellite designers begin to think about standardization, or at least make sure that their platforms are built to standards that the robots can handle.

One problem I can foresee is getting enough radiation-hardened processor power in orbit. The top-of-the-line spacegoing CPUs aren't very impressive compared to a desktop machine of ten years ago. The greater your component packing density the greater the odds that a subatomic particle is going to knock a bit loose somewhere. We'll probably just have to accept that the error/failure rate of such equipment is just going to be substantially higher, and build in enough redundancy and error-detection and correction capability to make it workable. Space is not a great environment for microprocessors.

Still, once you have robots that can perform at that level, just ship components up there and have them assemble even larger facilities in orbit. Immensity can be bought very cheaply in space: getting the raw materials up there is the problem. Next step would be to set up robotic mining colonies on the moon, and use a solar-powered mass-driver to ship refined products to Earth orbit. We could have an entire space infrastructure up and running before a human being ever sets foot in it. I remember reading James P. Hogan's "Two Faces of Tomorrow": he offered a remarkable vision of such technology at work. We couldn't do it today (that's why it was science-fiction) but it would certainly be doable.

That is, if we have the vision ... personally, I doubt it. We're far too concerned with building another failed welfare state (or another failed fascist state, or both) to be bothered about such things. And that's too bad: maybe if we'd taken a trillion or so of that bailout money and put it into this kind of research we'd have something really worthwhile in a few years.

Sophisticated orbital robotics could kick off a near-space revolution as world-changing as the original Space Race, and with even greater economic return. Try convincing the President of that (or anyone on NASA's appropriations committee for that matter.) It truly boggles my mind (and depresses me, when I think about it) how many people in this country have been thoroughly brainwashed into believing that our space efforts should be shut down because they're a waste of money. Hell, if you just take economic effect of space-based weather prediction alone, our efforts in space have been well-rewarded. Now add in military tech, communications, scientific research ... the whole tapestry of sciences and technologies that have been advanced because we took some captured German V2 rockets and started experimenting with them.

Why no Republican backlash? (0, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803278)

Why hasn't there been a Republican backlash over this? This is clearly a case of "reuse", which is one of the 3 Communist Rs (the others are "reduce" and "recycle").

Re:Makes sense (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803298)

I was just thinking it sounds like a really great game. It would make a dandy mod for some FPS engine that can handle rotating the player.

Makes no sense (2)

frovingslosh (582462) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803338)

As the article says, the current birds are not made for this, and that is one orbit that you really don't want to play Angry Birds in. It would make much more sense to mandate that if you want GEO orbital space any new satellite would have to be highly modular and repairable, and maybe even plan for refiling (although if you think fuel is expensive here just wait to see the cost there). With an insane amount of money you might kluge together something with the current scrap, but I doubt it could offset the cost of getting the robots to do it there in the first place. Far better and safer to cut losses on the old junk and stop sending up unfix-able designs.

V'Ger (1)

Latent Heat (558884) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803436)

Um, maybe the reconstructed satellite will want to mind meld with a bald Asian sex goddess?

Re:Makes no sense (1)

jfengel (409917) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804048)

It's a good idea to make mandates for the GEO orbit, but it's going to add weight and cost to the next round of birds. That makes them even more expensive, and you'd better be able to demonstrate that you will in fact be able to take advantage of it, or that will be added cost to no benefit.

It sounds like they're faced with the same situation software developers often are: reuse would be great, but much of the time it really is cheaper just to re-build another custom solution. And even if we do explicitly design for re-use, we'll probably guess wrong about what the possible re-uses should have been.

It's _never_ as simple as snapping legos together. It's always the dream, but at best you get dozens of iterations before a standard arises. I bet its the same for satellites as for software.

Re:Makes sense (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803480)

You're just a douchebag luddite. Space is the future, I can't wait to 3D print a bungalow on Mars with raw material mined from Saturn's rings.

How do you like that "Space Nutter" style answer? Pretty accurate, eh?

Re:Makes sense (4, Insightful)

frank_adrian314159 (469671) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803734)

This sounds like one of those brilliant ideas on paper, but one that will prove infinitely harder in reality.

Remember that "R" in DARPA's name? It doesn't have to work. It just has to be something interesting from which one could learn something new. And I could see a whole lot of useful/interesting stuff coming out of even trying to do something like this.

Re:Makes sense (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803912)

But at least now we have an idea of what they may plan on using the X-37 for.

With a few mods to this idea, it also wouldn't be too hard to use this process to tap into and record other countries satellite data. Think of the intel aspect. Completely hijacking satellites is another possibility.

Re:Makes sense (1)

Smallpond (221300) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804148)

This sounds like one of those brilliant ideas on paper, but one that will prove infinitely harder in reality. Re-use satelites, great idea, good luck doing it though.

I have a closet full of old PC components and will never use most of them -- and those were designed to be interchangeable commodity parts. What are the chances that you can take a solar panel off an old satellite and use it for something? Did they standardize on micro-USB connectors? nope. Common voltage? nope. Standard mounting bracket? nope.

What other heavy items might be useful? batteries, telescopes, radios. Still less likely than my old PC parts.

The only chance this has is taking new parts up and repairing existing satellites using remote controlled or autonomous robots. Humans don't have a vehicle capable of getting to GEO. That might save a little of the cost of building and launching a whole new satellite if the robot can be reused for many missions.

The only precedent I can think of is the Hubble repair mission. On that one they found the bolts required much higher torque than they expected. I remember one of the astronauts called the Car Talk guys to ask about it. I don't think a robot would be able to pull out a cell phone.

Re:Makes sense (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804954)

I don't think a robot would be able to pull out a cell phone.

True, but what would happen is that the human operator would receive a message on his screen saying, "operation halted, programmed torque limit exceeded." The operator could then decided to override the limit and see if he can't work it loose. If that doesn't work, then he or she can call up the Car Talk guys.

We Know Who To Blame (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803144)

The niggers. It's their fault it won't work. The jews put them up to it. amirite?

One question (3, Interesting)

lennier1 (264730) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803170)

Would the whole process and those dated components even warrant all those expenses?

Re:One question (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803212)

Well, let's see. On the one side, we have DARPA's well-funded program, presumably chock full of experts in the field, who seem to think it is.

But then a guy on Slashdot isn't sure.

What to think, what to think...

Re:One question (-1, Flamebait)

lennier1 (264730) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803242)

We should listen to some AC who's talking out of his ass instead of actually adressing the question?

Re:One question (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803322)

Well, let's see. On the one side, we have DARPA's well-funded program, presumably chock full of experts in the field, who seem to think it is.

But then a guy on Slashdot isn't sure.

What to think, what to think...

Experts take a backseat to politicians. And politicians fuck every engineering project they put their grubby hands on.
Witness the ISS and the SHUTTLE.
Going in geosynchronous orbit to recover useful material from satellites ? Yeah not going to happen. Not now, not in 10 years, not in 50 years. We'll have greater probability of going to Mars or the Moon before even having some kind of orbital recycling facility (not for low earth orbit).
Just look at what happens for leo satellites, instead of recycling certain components we burn them up in the atmosphere.

Re:One question (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803352)

Just look at what happens for leo satellites, instead of recycling certain components we burn them up in the atmosphere.

This story is about geosynchronous satellites. Those are not burnt in the atmosphere. Doing so would be quite expensive, indeed.

Re:One question (2)

jamesh (87723) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803694)

If nothing else, all the crap up there could be useful as reaction mass :)

Re:One question (2)

msobkow (48369) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803216)

I agree we need to collect the space junk we've scattered in orbit. It's a hazard to future flights.

But I can't imagine that the hardware left up there is worth the expense of salvage. Most of the expense of a satellite is not the hardware itself, but the R&D that goes into them, the testing, the prototypes, the huge staff involved in the overall process of design and construction. The hardware itself is as disposable and unimportant as your PC.

Not components, but the travel... (5, Insightful)

jopsen (885607) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803330)

From the article:

one of the primary drivers of the high cost is the launch costs,

It's interesting todo because the antennas and solar panels makes up quite a lot of the launch costs... they're not talking about reusing everything, just the heavy parts :)

Re:Not components, but the travel... (2)

gatkinso (15975) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803946)

Heavy parts being optics, benches, batteries, flywheels, gyroscopes.... basically everything that is not reusable.

Re:Not components, but the travel... (1)

mspohr (589790) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805746)

The heavy parts mentioned in the article are the antennas (large parabolic dishes) . These don't wear out and could be reused. I imagine solar panels could also be reused.

Guess it is time to standaradize (2)

Shivetya (243324) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804406)

if they can prove reassembly in orbit is viable then it suggests that the space industry needs to standardize to facilitate this.

Re:One question (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803362)

The hardware maybe disposable here on earth but once put into orbit it gains a whole new value of at least $14,000 per pound. I believe DARPA wants to send say five robots into space to build like 40 new satellites. Also I don't think many advances worth the cost of sending a new bird have been made on most of the heavy parts of satellites since say 1975. I am talking thrusters, Antennas, Outer shells, etc. I think that it is a lot harder then it looks, and unlikely to happen without real advances in robots here on earth. It could work for say GPS birds and other birds with several carcases to harness good spares from. But only if the robots have human level skill sets.

Re:One question (1)

hedwards (940851) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803428)

Or make the Chinese do it seeing as that stunt they pulled with that anti-satellite weapon contributed so substantially to the problem in the first place.The only other cases where the US in 1985 and again in 2008. Neither event contributed significantly to the problem and the latter debris is almost certainly already out of orbit.

Re:One question (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803332)

$300 billion of equipment sounds like a large recoverable expense. Also, that large dollar sum has to correlate to physical stuff. That is, there is $300 billion in equipment floating around the earth that future satellites and manned ships will have to navigate around. Right now the number is increasing every year (minus the US satellite that re-entered this year and the German satellite that is about to). The value will be most realized in cleaning up the debris rather than in making satellites operational.

Re:One question (1)

Intropy (2009018) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805332)

Even is the components are completely obsolete and not reusable, the components of the components could still be reusable. How far down do you want to strip it? If it came down to it, you could melt parts of the satellite down, separate out the materials, and start from scratch. The main thing you're saving is the gigantic cost of getting mass from the Earth into orbit.

Recovery of satellitesd (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803182)

Man, if only someone could design a launch vehicle which could also be used to capture and return old satellites to Earth for disassembly. Although knowing how these things work I suspect such a vehicle would never really be used to it's full potential and become retired shortly before someone else noticed it might be a good idea.

Re:Recovery of satellitesd (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803368)

Man, if only someone could design a launch vehicle which could also be used to capture and return old satellites to Earth for disassembly.

That would not save you the cost of transporting them (back) into space. It would only add the cost of getting them down to earth (which for GEO satellites would be quite expensive as well).

And doesn't cost $1.5bn per flight (1)

tp1024 (2409684) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803420)

You forgot that part.

Re:Recovery of satellitesd (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804016)

We're talking about geosynchronous orbit here asshole. Do some research before exposing yourself as an utterly ignorant naive retard who learned eveything about space from his Star Trek box set. And it's means IT IS, moron.

Space junk (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803190)

I thought non-functioning satellites were kicked into a higher orbit so their slot could be reused.

As far as the idea of reusing component, I just have the thought of instead of one big piece of junk in a stable orbit turning into lots of components in unstable orbits.

Orbital Junkyards (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803214)

Earthbound junkyards work, because there's lots of interchangeable parts that can be harvested from old cars. Can the same be said of satellites, or are they made of one-time built to order parts? Also, it's one thing for a junkyard part in your car to crap out on the road. Do you want to trust satellites in orbit with used parts? Oh, just stop by the orbital junkyard, for a new used part . . .

Re:Orbital Junkyards (4, Interesting)

robot256 (1635039) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803250)

Some satellites are one-offs, but things like the GPS and NOAA constellations have dozens of virtually identical models. And speaking from experience, the space industry is moving (although ever so slowly) toward interchangeable parts to reduce costs. If they knew there were five or ten usable solar arrays for the taking, they could design the interface to accept them as well as a new parts.

The other interesting thing is that being able to salvage satellite parts would mean they would be less of a sunk cost and more of an investment. If they have a resale value after they are retired, that adds profit motive to the launching company.

Re:Orbital Junkyards (4, Interesting)

GPSguy (62002) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803280)

Beat me to it...

There's a tendency now to try to use more common components in new satellites, especially for meteorology birds, while there's always new science, adapting existing hardware to do the work means you might get a couple of instruments on different spaceframes, and not cost as much as the gee-whiz one-offs. Someone already mentioned that R&D, testing, SRM&QA and launch services cost a bunch. If we COULD accomplish this, then restoring capabilities on-orbit would be great.

NASA had a "Flight Telerobotic Servicer" project in the early 90's. Don't know where it went but it did get a fair bit of support and a lot of good engineering talent was pointed at it. From my interactions with DARPA projects in the past, there's a fair chance that something useful will come out of this, even if the whole program is over-ambitious.

Orbital Chop Shop (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803224)

The Pentagon is making it and they are not known for being green. So the actual purpose could be as a weapon against other satellites.

If only we had a space craft to go fetch 'em (1)

Dupple (1016592) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803234)

We could just bring them back to earth and relaunch them later. Now all we need is a space craft that can land on earth after a trip into near orbit...

Re:If only we had a space craft to go fetch 'em (1)

lennier1 (264730) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803254)

Good thing the Chinese are currently developing something based on that novel idea.

Re:If only we had a space craft to go fetch 'em (1)

spirito (1552779) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803328)

The shuttle is not even close to the capability to go into geosynchronous orbit!

Re:If only we had a space craft to go fetch 'em (1)

jopsen (885607) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803344)

Why? the whole point is to avoid launching heavy parts like antennas and solar panels... Because they are heavy, not because they're expensive to buy...

X-37 (1)

sunfly (1248694) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803406)

We sorta have one in the X-37. No idea if it is big enough to haul a satellite, or if it even has a robotic arm capable of catching one.

I believe they are looking for new missions for this spacecraft to justify continue development. Perhaps the reason for the suggestion? They are currently proposing a "C" model that is 20% larger to provide the capability to haul astronauts in the cargo bay.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-37 [wikipedia.org]

Re:If only we had a space craft to go fetch 'em (1)

thrich81 (1357561) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803408)

In addition to spirito's earlier comment that the Shuttle couldn't get near to geosynchronous orbit (the max the Shuttle ever got to was just under 400 miles, geosynch is about 25,000), as the article states "one of the primary drivers of the high cost is the launch costs". Thus bringing any components back defeats the purpose of the cost savings of harvesting in the first place -- one more task the Shuttle never did nor could do economically as promised.

Re:If only we had a space craft to go fetch 'em (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804516)

Just another nail in the coffin of Space Nuttery.

Ownership (2)

Gonoff (88518) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803270)

Who does an old defunct satellite belong to? I suspect that it still belongs to whoever put it up there, or their executors, whoever bought the company etc.

And who is authorised to say that something is defunct anyway? Imagine such phrases as "We left it dormant for future needs." and "We were keeping it until we could go up ourselves, collect it, bring it back and repair it."

Scientists and engineers may have worked out the economics of doing this, but have they included that nasty concept of Corporate Lawyers?

Re:Ownership (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803326)

Who does an old defunct satellite belong to? I suspect that it still belongs to whoever put it up there, or their executors, whoever bought the company etc.

I'd think so, too.

And who is authorised to say that something is defunct anyway?

The owner, of course. You would probably have to pay him something for the right to reuse parts of his satellite, but as long as it's cheaper than sending up a new one, it would still be a net advantage. And for the owner it's deciding between having useless junk in space he won't ever be able to use again, or getting money for someone reusing it. It's a no-brainer.

Re:Ownership (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803382)

Scientists and engineers may have worked out the economics of doing this, but have they included that nasty concept of Corporate Lawyers?

Oh man if the project were viable I would just send a bunch of corporate layers up in orbit in deep freeze.
And awaken them only when needed which would be never.

Re:Ownership (1)

russotto (537200) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803798)

Scientists and engineers may have worked out the economics of doing this, but have they included that nasty concept of Corporate Lawyers?

I'd expect that a satellite in a retirement orbit would still belong to the original owner, but the Corporate Lawyers aren't necessarily a large bar. If it's the original owner doing or benefiting from the salvaging, or if they get a sufficient cut of the savings, the lawyers can stick to writing contracts rather than getting in the way.

A larger problem seems to be that for this to work, it has to be cheaper to maintain a repair capability in GEO than to launch new satellites. Launching satellites is expensive, but developing and maintaining a repair capability is basically a complete unknown.

Re:Ownership (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37805314)

There's of course a conflict of interest if the same company building the satellites also provides the launch services (e.g. boeing (who make e.g. the GPS satellites) and ULA (apparently the DOD's favorite builder of rockets, lockheed martin and boeing).

Re:Ownership (1)

arthurpaliden (939626) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804688)

Salvage use law of the sea as a basis.

Re:Ownership (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804884)

Ha!

Try to enforce law *in loco* :D

Re:Ownership (1)

Edgester (105351) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805560)

If the original owners own the satellite, then would they be liable for the space junk they leave behind? Company A's space junk takes out Company B's working satellite. Let the corporate lawyer death-match commence! If there was real punching, then I would buy a ticket.

Lego, Lego Lego !!! (2, Informative)

Going_Digital (1485615) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803276)

Arrgh, what is it with slashdot posters, there is no such thing as Logo's, just like you don't say multiple USB's, you say multiple USB Ports. Lego is the brand name for the construction system and the components are called bricks or components, so the correct way to say this would be 'multiple Lego bricks' or 'multiple Lego components'.

Re:Lego, Lego Lego !!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803304)

Look, I know trademark law is shitty like that, but I'm going to keep calling them Legos instead of "Lego(TM)-brand plastic molded building component bricks" or whatever the official name of it is.

If you don't like it, fix the trademark law so that the common people can call things whatever they feel like, as long as nobody but Lego sells Legos.

Re:Lego, Lego Lego !!! (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803402)

there is no such thing as Logo's

Oh yes there is [wikipedia.org] .

Re:Lego, Lego Lego !!! (1)

EETech1 (1179269) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803606)

I remember reading this on the back of every Lego instruction booklet when I was a kid. These are Lego bricks, or Lego blocks, please do not call them Legos as this is not the trademarked name. Funny what sticks in your mind after 30+ years! I remember reading that over and over and pondering the difference, and why on earth it would matter!

Cheers

Re:Lego, Lego Lego !!! (1)

shoehornjob (1632387) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803904)

Duck... here come the grammer nazi's.

Ownership (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803290)

It seems to me that ownership issues would be a major concern. Say corporation A and corporation B send up satellites at the same time. Both have components break in the same year, rendering both satellites useless. However, since 90% of each satellite is still usable and since the components are on the other satellite, it makes sense to cannibalize one for the other. Which one gets cannibalized? Who owns the final frankenstein?

Any VC's out there want to start a business with me? Buy up dead satellites for pennies and sell them to DARPA or become the space scrap yard. PM me if interested!

" are not designed to be disassembled or repaired" (1)

HellYeahAutomaton (815542) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803372)

It sounds suspiciously like these satellites are products made by Apple.

Motive? (1)

mepperpint (790350) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803374)

Is this DARPA's real motive or do they want the ability to cannibalize enemy satellites?

Huge Orbiting Junkyard. (1)

bejiitas_wrath (825021) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803396)

A huge orbiting junk yard could lead to a space-station, the Chinese could build this and make a permanent step into space and help clean up all of the orbiting space junk, of which their must be millions of pieces by now. That would make future trips into space much safer.

We can only hope.

Cost of bringing it into space? (1)

pinkeen (1804300) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803514)

I thought that the cost of bringing the satellite into space exceeds the cost of the actual hardware a lot. Does it really make sense to harvest the parts? I'd like to see numbers.

Why not (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803634)

rip up the government and make a new one instead

Union Labor (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803640)

Screw developing more robots, although robots are cool, but this is THE REASON to send real-live Union Labor to do the job.

Darpa. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803782)

DISCLAIMERS:
- Though not hostile to the US, I'm a foreigner, so don't expect me to hold your hands, too.
- Overall, I tend to consider everyone first as Earthlings, then humans and finally as citizens of a country.
- Defense usually means reacting. It seems to mean "attacking" in English (IMHO "wake up first and kill him before he kills you" is apelike, not human).

We need some kind of agreement for space like the one we have about Antarctica.

That before you recycle another country's satellite and this makes them angry; part of the Defense goals is to avoid stepping on the toes of others. Avoid creating enemies: it's way cheaper than fighting them.

Having power is great, but it's worthless without control.

We were made to have limited powers and so, until now, the world has not been destroyed. Limit yourselves before you regret having too much power.

Not a new idea. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37803808)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064691/

Actually, a reusable space plane would be real handy for this kind of job.... oh, wait.

It depends (1)

SmallFurryCreature (593017) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803848)

A lot of reactions talk about the cost of fuel... seemingly these people forget that the satellite in question might still have fuel available that is going unused. What if out of this research it becomes clear that any new satellite needs the requirement to have enough fuel left for one last journey to the collector satellite orbit where it will be dismantled.

I wonder how a slashdot story about Darpa seeking input on a research project for some kind of network that can route around damage would be received. Seems like Slashdot is getting more and more users that immediately go negative rather then exploring the possibilities.

Re:It depends (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803970)

that the satellite in question might still have fuel available that is going unused.

Considering the trivial amount of delta-v required to keep a satellite in GEO, that amount of fuel is likely to be tiny per satellite - ie not worth the fuel cost of boosting specialized fuel extraction/recycling equipment up to GEO and into specific orbits. Add this to the fact that fuel is usually pressurized, and that different satellites are probably using different fuel types - it's not the easiest component to deal with.

Re:It depends (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804242)

"Seems like Slashdot is getting more and more users that immediately go negative rather then exploring the possibilities."

it's just that the crowd is getting older.

and well, uh, fixing up old satellites has been done in the past. hubble is the main example of "reusing" parts instead of sending everything up again.

Junkyards in Space (1)

32771 (906153) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803886)

This sort of thing could really put a space station and its inhabitants to easy to understand use, fix and repair stuff in orbit. Keep most of the kinetic energy, get unobstructed sunshine, and catch some space junk - campy. Running a solar sailing race on the side as a hobby could be entertaining.

I remember that there existed a TV show about junkyard people in the past. Maybe one could come up with a space comedy around it. Some cross between Alien and Space Cowboys maybe.

Re:Junkyards in Space (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804446)

What we really need are some Jawas. [wikia.com]

I remember! (1)

32771 (906153) | more than 2 years ago | (#37803976)

I made some comment about the topic in the past. Nice, DARPA listened, or to be more modest, had a similar idea.

Darn sad I can't find it now. Thinking about it, it really isn't that hard to come up with the idea, somebody like Oberth or Ziolkovsky probably already thought about it.

How about something that shuttles satellites back? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804470)

I have this perfect idea. We build a re-usable re-entry vehicle that allows us to launch new satellites, and while in orbit we could retrieve the defunct older satellite and simply bring the whole thing back to Earth. Then when the satellite's on Earth we can scrap the heck out of it, re-using nearly everything that's in it in the first place. Maybe even just replace that one pesky component that failed, re-test everything and send it back up on another mission.

I envision this space vehicle to have a huge cargo bay capable of taking heavy loads into orbit, maybe we could even use it to build and re-supply the space station. It would would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and then act like a glider of sorts to land on a conventional runway. The payload would be removed and the orbiter prepared for another mission in less than a few weeks.

This could be the best solution out there as it gets the old piece out of orbit thereby nullifying it's danger to other orbiting objects; allows us to recycle the valuable components and progresses human exploration of space.

In fact, I know where there are about four of these very spaceships just waiting to be used. ... all sarcasm aside, the Air Force B-52 was developed in the 40's and is STILL flying today, even after follow-on fighter/bombers were developed, deployed and are now retired. There may have been a lot of things wrong with the Space Shuttle, but there were far more things -right- about it that it should have been brought into the 21st century and continued service. No, I don't work for NASA, but I've been a fan of the space program since I was a little boy.

Re:How about something that shuttles satellites ba (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37805582)

Do you realize how fucking stupid and clueless you sound? Oh go shed a tear over the delusions of the Space Age already. It's OVER. FINISHED.

MOVE THE FUCK ON ALREADY

How without the Shuttle (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804490)

And it's beautiful Canada Arm.

Why not a Service Station (2)

arthurpaliden (939626) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804594)

Use some of those inflatable habitats and build a dry dock / junk yard in orbit. Use a tug to take stuff back and forth to and from LEO and GSO.

And then there's the ISS... (1)

trenobus (730756) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804702)

The ISS is expensive to keep in operation with a crew, so there has been discussion of taking it out of service in a few years, and de-orbiting it. My suggestion is to salvage [newsvine.com] it using robotic technology, and use the material to build new satellites in space.

The original space program had enormous technological benefits for society that would have been valuable even if we had failed to land on the moon. I believe a program to develop robots to disassemble the ISS and build satellites would also pay dividends in terms of advancing robotic technology for manufacturing and recycling, whether the goal is achieved or not.

Remember when you were a kid... (1)

ibsteve2u (1184603) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804792)

...and you didn't want to wear your older brother's patched jeans to school?

Now - under the expert leadership that contaminating politics with money yields - the space program of the United States of America is going to wear patched satellites in outer space...that's progress.

Orbiting (1)

arisvega (1414195) | more than 2 years ago | (#37804930)

".. the complexity is similar to trying to assemble via remote control multiple orbiting Legos at the same time while looking through a telescope."

Fixed that for you.

Shadow Moses (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37804936)

So where does Solid Snake fit into all of this?

Maybe it's not about OUR satellites... (1)

time961 (618278) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805414)

It seems possible that the Defense Department is researching this technology not just for economic savings. If technology like this existed, it could be used, for example, to remove a nifty new imaging sensor or radar component from someone else's satellite, or maybe to add a device that connects to that satellite's internal data bus (operation Ivy Bells [specialoperations.com] , anyone?) and taps or modifies the data.

Most satellites have essentially no situational awareness, because being taken apart by little aliens in shiny green spacesuits (or by advanced remanufacturing robots) is just not part of the threat model. So it tends to be very hard for ground control to distinguish between a random equipment failure and a failure caused by deliberate modification of the spacecraft.

This mission probably isn't what the X-37 [nasa.gov] is for, since it's a low earth orbit vehicle, not geosynchronous.

What I would like to see (1)

symbolset (646467) | more than 2 years ago | (#37805754)

A sort of suicidal hunter-killer micro bot bird flock. Launched with scores of these bots in each rocket, on attaining orbit they spread out, attach to dead junk and deorbit it. Or aggregate it all in one spot for this proposed mechbot to service.
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