Satellites that reach the end of their useful lives are often boosted into a “graveyard” orbit in order to make way for replacements. Now, DARPA has proposed a grave-robbing robot that could stitch together parts from these dead satellites to create new ones, avoiding the huge expense of launching components into space.
DARPA’s Phoenix program aims to re-purpose ground-based robotic systems, such as those used by surgeons to operate on remote patients, allowing a person on the ground to dissemble satellites and reuse expensive parts such as antennas. The program will also develop a new kind of nanosatellite that hitchs a ride aboard a normal satellite launch vehicle and ejects once it reaches the correct orbit. The grave-robbing robot can then scoop up these nanosatellites and attach them to an old antenna to create a new low-cost communications platform.
Plans are in place for a first test mission in 2015, with the robot harvesting parts from an existing retired satellite and reconfiguring them for a new purpose. But the grave-robber won’t be able to go after any old satellite – the Outer Space Treaty means that any object launched into space remains the property of the country that launched it, even if it has been dumped in a graveyard orbit.