DARPA Mulls Alternative Ideas for Space Robotics Demo Program

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is evaluating whether a program previously characterized as a satellite servicing and salvaging mission may better serve the agency in another capacity that highlights its robotics technologies, a top DARPA official said.

One of the goals of the Phoenix program has been to develop a maneuverable spacecraft equipped with a dexterous robotic arm to salvage useful components from retired communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Some had likened the project to performing on-orbit surgery.

But in a recent interview, Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s tactical technology office, said the agency is reconsidering the Phoenix program’s primary capability after an internal review and discussions with the Defense Department, the Air Force and industry.

“The Phoenix program has a lot of critical technology in it. I think it’s fair to say there are certain organizations that don’t feel repurposing is as important as others,” Tousley said. “Repurposing’s interesting, but there may be other things that are more interesting.”

Some Air Force leaders had questioned the program’s premise, reasoning that the components and technology aboard many on-orbit satellites, particularly those nearing the end of their design lives, are already obsolete and not worth saving. 

Tousley laid out several alternative missions that could be demonstrated via the Phoenix program, including: helping a satellite stranded in low orbit by a launch or onboard propulsion failures reach its intended orbit; inspecting satellites for a commercial insurance provider wondering why a component did not work correctly; or eventually replacing failed components aboard a satellite.

“We’re looking at a broader class of missions, not just repurposing,” Tousley said. 

DARPA’s re-evaluation raises questions about the future of a core element of the Phoenix demonstration: satlets. As conceived by DARPA technologists, satlets are small modules that perform critical satellite functions including power, pointing and communications. In the satellite salvaging mission, these satlets would be used to help restore the functionality of components such as antennas salvaged from aging or spent satellites.

Tousley said DARPA remains committed to testing the satlets on orbit. The agency, he said, hopes to launch satlets into a low-inclination orbit as soon as 2015. 

From there, DARPA will determine how the program will move forward. The satlets, for example, may prove to be a new way to assemble on-orbit capabilities, Tousley said. 

“Once we conclude the examination of Phoenix, we may determine there’s a different mission we want to do,” which would not necessarily be in geosynchronous orbit, Tousley said. “We might not need them for the geo-robotics or we may.”

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 sought $40 million in 2014. 

Novawurks of Los Alamitos, Calif., received a $30.8 million contract for satlet solutions in October. Another key contractor on the Phoenix program is Honeybee Robotics of New York, which in November was awarded a contract to develop the robotic tools to be used in the demonstration. 

 

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