Honeybee Nabs DARPA Phoenix Contract

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WASHINGTON — Honeybee Robotics of New York has won a contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for work on an experimental satellite servicing and salvaging project known as Phoenix, according to a Nov. 21 press release from the company.

The goal of Phoenix is to develop a maneuverable spacecraft equipped with a dexterous robotic arm to salvage useful components from retired communications satellites in geostationary orbit.

For the first demonstration mission, tentatively scheduled for launch in 2015 or 2016 on an as-yet-unidentified rocket, a Phoenix spacecraft will try to remove an antenna from a satellite in a graveyard orbit and outfit it with so-called satlets: modules being developed by DARPA that provide core satellite functions such as power, pointing and communications.

Under the new contract, Honeybee would develop what it calls the Universal Gripper Anchor, which the Phoenix craft would position near the boom connecting a retired satellite to its antenna. The anchor would clamp down and sever the boom; the old satellite bus would drift away and the antenna would remain attached to the salvaging vehicle. The anchor and antenna would  form the nucleus of a new satellite, to which components — satlets — would be added.

Honeybee would also develop a second tool, a product it calls a Satlet Gripper Tool, that would be attached to the end of a robotic arm on the Phoenix craft. The tool would pluck individual satlets from the Phoenix craft and plug them into the anchor on the newly created satellite.

“During the first phase of development with DARPA Phoenix, Honeybee has provided creative solutions that enable a new flight architecture to build satellites on-orbit,” Jason Herman, director of robotics and automation technology at Honeybee, said in the press release. “Performance testing indicates that our end effectors will operate reliably in the demanding environment of space, helping DARPA complete its exciting demonstration mission.”

Honeybee spokesman John Abrashkin declined to disclose the value of the contact. DARPA did not immediately return an email asking for the amount.

DARPA officials have said the agency hopes to have a list of 10 prospective target satellites for the first Phoenix salvaging mission before the end of 2014.

DARPA began development work on the first Phoenix demonstration mission in 2012 and has allocated $180 million over four years for the project. The agency is seeking $40 million in 2014.