Monday, October 14, 2013

DARPA Phoenix Moves Forward Towing Canada Along

Screen capture from the DARPA website.

          by Brian Orlotti

A California based firm has been awarded a $40Mln US contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the next round of work on the DARPA "Phoenix" orbital satellite salvaging program.

The design, building and deployment of satellites has traditionally been a long, expensive process. Today, when a satellite fails, an expensive new one must be launched to replace it. This paradigm has resulted in a vast amount of "space junk" in Earth orbit, posing a serious threat to space infrastructure (as vividly portrayed in the recent hit film "Gravity"). The goal of the Phoenix program is to develop technologies that can salvage components from non-functioning satellites in orbit and use them to create new satellites at greatly reduced cost.

The Phoenix program is based around the concept of ‘satlets:’ small, modular satellite cores (similar to nanosatellites). The satlets would be housed inside a module called a payload orbital deliver system (PODS) which could then cost-effectively be sent into orbit as a piggyback payload on a commercial rocket. A separate servicing satellite (or "tender") would be built and launched into orbit separately.
Once the tender arrives in orbit, the PODS would be released from its host rocket and link up with the tender to become its "tool belt." Using the tender’s robotic arms, the satlets could then be attached to the antenna or chassis of a non-functional satellite, essentially creating a new system. During Phoenix’s first demonstration mission, tentatively scheduled for a 2015/2016 launch on a yet-to-be-determined rocket, a tender will attempt to remove an antenna from a satellite in a graveyard orbit and attach a satlet to it.

The latest contract, won by Novawurks Inc. of Los Alamitos, CA, included a $30Mln US base award with four options worth a combined $10Mln. The company’s contribution to Phoenix continues to be satlet development based on its customizable "HISat" platform. Novawurks had previously won a $2.8 million contract in 2012 to develop satlets for the program.
A Canadian connection to Phoenix was forged late last year when BC based MacDonald, Dettwiler (MDA) announced that it had been selected to join the program. Drawing on its extensive experience in space robotics, MDA will work with the US Naval Research Laboratory to provide the tender's robotic arms. MDA’s scope for this portion of the program is estimated at $27.2 million. MDA has also been awarded two other contracts from DARPA to develop key robotic satellite servicing technologies. These include advanced robotic tools, cameras, tool caddies, and designs for a dexterous robot similar to the the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (DEXTRE) already in use aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The original SIS orbital "mechanic." Graphic c/o MDA.

MDA had been promoting its own orbital servicing craft, called the Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) vehicle to DARPA. Like the Phoenix, SIS would serve as an orbital robotic mechanic. However, SIS would also have the ability to refuel satellites in orbit, vastly extending their useful lives. MDA shopped SIS around to potential customers. In March 2011, satellite operator Intelsat SA agreed to pay $280 million for the SIS to refuel some satellites in its fleet, with the first mission flying in 2015.

However, in January 2012, the deal fell through. Company officials cited lack of financial commitment from the US government as one of the main reasons. Later that year, DARPA unveiled the Phoenix program, and the US government’s stance became much clearer.

Orbital satellite servicing holds the promise of greatly lowering the cost of orbital assets. Soon, orbital robot mechanics and gascans may make fixing a satellite on par with fixing a wayward cell tower.

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