Researchers Develop Tow Truck for Space

By Eric Beidel

When a satellite is retired it goes into “graveyard” orbit, even though some of its components may still be useful.

Scientists want to launch a robot into space that would remove functioning parts from retired satellites and transport them to a different orbit for continued use. Naval Research Laboratory roboticist Glen Henshaw, who is part of the team working on the project, called it an “orbital tow truck.”

It would be similar to the way surgeons perform telesurgery on a patient thousands of miles away or how remote imaging systems used for offshore drilling view the ocean floor thousands of feet underwater. The same concept could work in space if capabilities are re-engineered for zero gravity, high-vacuum and harsh radiation, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is funding the work under the Phoenix program.

Antennas and solar arrays often last much longer than satellites, though currently there is no way to reuse them. Experts estimate that there are more than $300 billion worth of satellites, many retired, in geo-synchronous orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth. There may be more than 100 retired satellites that contain components that could be repurposed, DARPA officials said.

The process of replacing a failed communication satellite in space takes years and is expensive. The Phoenix program aims to reuse components from retired satellites and create new space systems at lower costs. Researchers envision a “communications farm” of old satellite antennas in space.

“It could change the way that satellites are engineered,” Henshaw said, noting that the research could lead to more modular designs.

The Phoenix team hopes to use on-orbit grappling tools remotely controlled from Earth by 2015 to demonstrate the concepts of orbital tow and space reuse.

Topics: Robotics, Space

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