Military Embedded Systems

DARPA satellite salvage plan aims to save DoD dollars


January 24, 2013

Brandon Lewis

Technology Editor

Embedded Computing Design

ARLINGTON, VA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced a plan to repurpose older satellites still in geosynchronous orbit. The plan, called the “Phoenix Program,” involves mining older, decommissioned satellites still in orbit with a permanently orbiting ground-controlled robotic mechanic named the Phoenix Service/Tender. After harvesting usable parts, such as transmitters, solar panels, and the antennas of retired spacecraft, the Phoenix Service/Tender would attach mini satellites or “satlets” to the antenna to create a new working satellite.

“Small, inexpensive satlets that can only complete a small subset of the specific functions of a contemporary large communications satellite could be physically attached in space to a very large antenna from a retired, cooperating satellite to resurrect a new communications capability,” said DARPA Program Manager David Barnhart at a Phoenix Program press conference.

With the government looking to reduce the manufacturing costs of satellites, the first test of the Phoenix Program is scheduled for 2015, in which an attempt to retrieve an unspecified decommissioned or inoperable satellite in orbit will take place. DARPA proposes that the Department of Defense (DoD) could leverage some 140 decommissioned satellites through the repurposing concept. DARPA also foresees the low-cost, high-volume satlets piggybacking on space-bound commercial rockets to reduce expense.

“We’re attempting to essentially increase the return on investment … and try to find a way to really change the economics so that we can lower the cost of military space missions,” said Barnhart. “If you have the ability to utilize hardware that’s up there, you can do this at a lower cost,” he added.

$180 million has been allocated to launch the four-year program. DARPA announced a Broad Area Announcement (BAA) stating that they will begin examining technology proposals in February of this year. The list of technologies the agency is interested in includes hardware and software technologies related to the program’s proximity and rendezvous operations, virtual ground station operations, and the Payload Orbit Delivery (POD) modules that will be used to transport satlets and any tools the Phoenix Service/Tender may need into orbit.

A video demonstrating the concept can be viewed at and .


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