Center for Strategic Communication

Last year, Darpa launched a program, Phoenix, to harvest satellite parts. Now, the agency’s convening with researchers and already looking for a prime sat candidate to pick apart. Illustration: Darpa

The Pentagon’s intergalactic black-magic plot is getting ready to raise the dead.

Dead satellites, that is. Last year, Darpa, the military’s blue-sky research agency, kicked off a program designed to harvest parts from unused communications satellites still orbiting the Earth, and then turn those bits and pieces — antennas in particular — into an array that operates as a low-cost “communications farm” for troops on the ground.

Now that program, called Phoenix, is entering a new phase. First, Darpa last week issued a bid to commercial satellite owners, asking for “a candidate satellite” that’ll act as a space-based guinea pig for initial evaluations of the technology requisite for the initiative. And today, the agency hosted a conference on “sustainable satellite servicing” — attended by academics, private companies and military experts — to discuss everything from the program’s regulatory challenges to more technical “operational considerations” necessary to revive dead satellites.

Once fully realized, Darpa envisions the Phoenix program, which the agency wants to fully demonstrate by 2015, working something like this. First, a servicing satellite — complete with mechanical arms and other “unique tools” designed specifically for the program — would be launched into geosynchronous orbit (GEO). After that, the agency wants to launch an array of what they call “satlets” — wee, bare-bones satellites — to meet up with, and be stored by, the program’s primary satellite.

From there, the satellite posse would transfer to what’s known as GEO’s “graveyard” orbit — where non-functioning satellites linger — and start picking off antennas and other useful parts. Once an antenna is removed from its former satellite, it would be affixed to a satlet, which’d act as a controller to move the antenna into position as part of a zombified array of recycled satellite parts.

The program is “definitely ambitious, and some might call it crazy,” according to Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force Space Command who moderated a panel at today’s event. First, there are a host of technical hurdles for the agency to overcome. Even if they do, Darpa will also need to address “regulatory challenges” before Phoenix can get up and running, Weeden emails Danger Room.

On a technical level, the agency needs to develop new robotic tools capable of delicate, highly specific satellite work — namely, pulling apart satellites without damaging key parts — in space. Such “intensive robotic operations […] nearly 37,000 km away, will likely require a level of autonomy not seen before,” Weeden notes. And Darpa’s plan to use satlets to transform antennas into functional space vessels is also treading untested waters. “To my knowledge,” Weeden writes, “this is something that has never been done before.”

Darpa plans to evaluate those primary technical challenges using the candidate satellite they’re after, which should be “a geosynchronous satellite ending revenue-generating operations.” In particular, the agency wants to “demonstrate dextrous manipulation robotics,” including the removal of an antenna, and prove that the envisioned combination of a servicing satellite and satlets can “rendezvous and dock” with a candidate in-orbit.

Assuming the agency’s able to finesse those techniques to perfection, they’ll still grapple with logistical hurdles. Parking a new satellite in orbit requires two-pronged approval from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU): an orbital slot, and a frequency reservation. The process, however, is wrought with heavy international competition and administrative red tape. According to an ITU report released earlier this year, backlogs mean it might soon take up to three years for a satellite — after it’s been approved for GEO orbit — to be granted a specific slot and frequency.

Despite the challenges, Darpa is clearly intent on moving ahead. In fact, the agency last week also awarded their first contract under the Phoenix program: $2.5 million to NovaWurks Inc., a California-based division of Northrop Grumman dedicated to “rapid innovation in several areas, including space,” company director Talbot Jaeger tells Danger Room. Jaeger declined to offer more details on the contract before our deadline, but NovaWurks was last year involved in the development and testing of Mayflower, an inexpensive microsatellite that seems akin to Darpa’s “satlet” aspirations.

Of course, if Darpa does pull off the Phoenix program, it’d mean huge savings for the Pentagon’s satellite programs. Right now, launching a single satellite runs around $10,000 per pound of material. With an estimated $300 billion in dead satellites currently orbiting the GEO graveyard, recycling their functional parts “would dramatically lower the cost…of satellite missions for Defense Department needs,” according to Phoenix program manager Dave Barnhart.

In fact, Phoenix is only one part of a larger Darpa push to save money in space. In the past year alone, the agency’s appealed for research into cheap, easily deployable satellites to offer quick footage for soldiers on the ground, launched a program to replace ground-based satellite launchpads with subsonic airliners … and kicked off the Galileo program, which seeks enhanced telescopic imagery to better evaluate dead satellites that might make good candidates for cannibalism.

And even after all that effort — not to mention a budget that, for the Phoenix program alone, is currently pegged at $36 million — Darpa’s galatic zombies will likely serve the Pentagon’s bidding alone. “I don’t think it is likely that they will be able to replace the modern satellite,” Weeden writes. “But [these arrays] could be a useful compliment.”