The Pentagon just made its biggest investment yet into a project to build new satellites in space by reusing the parts of dead satellites.
The Defense Department relies on satellites to do everything from passing secret messages around the globe to giving troops navigation information and intelligence. The problem is, getting brand-new satellites into space can be an incredibly expensive and time-consuming effort.
To remedy this, the Pentagon wants to harvest parts from the roughly $300 billion worth of dead satellites that sit in a heavenly "graveyard or disposal orbit" and use their spare parts to build new ones, Frankenstein style, under a project called Phoenix. A roughly $40 million Phoenix contract was handed out earlier this week to a California company called NovaWurks.
While the Pentagon says the tech being developed for Phoenix is meant to save money, tech that allows a satellite to tear an old satellite apart could just as easily be used to attack a new one.
If you think any of this sounds far-fetched, it's worth noting that China is suspected to have used a satellite to grab at least one other in space last week. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force's secret X-37B robot space plane is believed by many to be used to get up close and personal with orbiting satellites. The X-37B stays aloft for months at a time, and amateur satellite trackers have seen it dramatically changing its orbits in space. Such maneuvers could point to the craft cozying up to various foreign satellites with the purpose of spying on them, according to some observers.
"The Phoenix program envisions developing a new class of small 'Satlets', or nano-satellites," which could be launched as "a 'ride along' on a commercial satellite launch, and then attached to the antenna of a non-operational cooperating satellite robotically, essentially creating a new" satellite, reads a 2011 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announcement.
To do this, a separate "tender" or "satellite-servicing spacecraft" will be built and launched into space, where it will meet up with the commercial spacecraft carrying the Satlets. This tender will use "grasping mechanical arms for removing the Satlets and components" from the box the Satlets were carried inside. The tender will then use "unique robotic tools to be developed in the program" to find an old satellite, scavenge parts from it, and attach them to the Satlet. (Check out the video at the end of this piece for a demo of the robot claws that are being developed for the Phoenix satellites.)
"The goal of the Phoenix program is to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonoperating satellites in [space] and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost," reads the DARPA announcement. "Phoenix seeks to demonstrate around-the-clock, globally persistent communication capability for warfighters more economically, by robotically removing and re-using [orbiting] space apertures and antennas from de-commissioned satellites in the graveyard or disposal orbit."
You read that correctly. Phoenix will bring the body of a mini-satellite into space, remove the salvageable cameras and antennas of dead satellites, and put them onto the mini-satellite, literally creating a frankensat in space.
By piggybacking on commercial launches and recycling old satellites, DARPA hopes the Pentagon would keep the cost of building satellites relatively low while taking advantage of their high performance.
It's not inconceivable to think that the technology developed for Phoenix could someday be used to quickly build backup satellites, if one of America's spacecraft suddenly goes offline.
"If you're critically dependent on space and cyber-capability and suddenly it's not there, what's next, what's Plan B?" asked Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, last month during a meeting with reporters.
"That's really our focus right now, trying to build resilience into our satellite constellations," Shelton told FP. "We're really trying to balance required capability, affordability, and resilience."
The U.S. is also looking at developing a policy of deterrence in space in response to what Pentagon officials call the "militarization of space."
"It may not be as specific as X and Y" -- saying if an enemy attacks a satellite, the U.S. will respond in kind, said Shelton. "It might be the United States considers the following a vital national interest and just makes that declaratory policy, and it could be fairly ambiguous about what follows from there -- or it could be very specific, X and Y."
DARPA isn't wasting any time. The agency expects a demonstration of orbital Frankensteinery by 2016. That's less than three years to create a satellite capable of meeting another in space and performing surgery all while traveling at insane speeds in a weightless environment. What could possibly go wrong?