Ray Locker,USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The military's push to save money while adding more aerial surveillance capabilities continues, as its high-tech research arm took another step with its program to recycle old, inactive satellites and give them new life with smaller, less expensive components.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued its first call for research into its Phoenix program in December 2011. At the time, DARPA records show, it sought to "develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, non-operating satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost."
Communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit, DARPA says, fly about 22,000 miles above the earth.
Since December 2011, DARPA has awarded three contracts, one to the Canadian technology firm MDA and two to Los Alamitos, Calif.-based NovaWurks, which specializes in developing space-based imaging technology. Earlier this week, DARPA awarded an almost $31 million contract with NovaWurks as part of the effort to create a group of disposable satellites that would be attached to the older satellites. These would provide a cheaper alternative to sending larger replacement satellites into orbit.
Phoenix envisions attaching some of the replacement "satlets" to existing commercial payloads that are routinely sent into orbit. Once in space, those satlets would then break off and link up to old satellites orbiting the earth.
DARPA documents show the program's aim is for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) imagery from these new satellites at the same cost of a drone aircraft flying in the atmosphere.
"Retired GEO satellites have already incurred the highest costs in a space system mission life cycle: fabrication, launch, and deployment," a DARPA planning document shows. "With over 1,300 satellites launched to GEO since the 1960's, it estimated over $300 billion worth of hardware and approximately 20,000 kg of apertures are in the GEO belt today."
Phoenix is not the only program developed by DARPA aimed at saving money on ISR. Among other projects, it is researching how to use drones that operate without human pilots and a submarine that can release underwater and aerial drones.
If successful, DARPA documents show it hopes to have an "on-orbit" demonstration ready for 2015 or 2016.