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Recycling Space Junk

November 15th, 2011 · No Comments

DARPA announced that it intends to recycling space junk like antenna or solar panels from decommisioned satellites if someone can build for them the technology to make this possible.

I was watching the movie WALL-E last weekend with my two boys and what caught my attention was the amount of space junk that the spacecraft has to pass through as it begins its journey away from the planet. As it is, that scene is not as far-fetched as one might imagine.

Since 1957 when the Russians launched the world’s first artificial satellite (the Sputnik I), hundreds of thousands of space debris are now orbiting the planet. These are objects as small as shuttle paint flakes, 2-centimeter bolts, and other spare parts to large completely intact if damaged or obsolete weather, communications, and military satellites.

These space objects are being tracked by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) mainly to provide information to protect new satellites from colliding against these orbiting space hazards. A small metal ball 2 cm. in diameter hurtling through space at 26,000 miles per hour obviously has the potential of damaging or destroying unshielded satellites.

This floating sea of space debris does not only pose a danger to future space missions, it’s also a source of billions of dollars worth of untapped resources. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) estimates the value of these obsolete, failed, and non-functioning satellites in geosynchronous (22,000 miles above the earth) orbit to be somewhere in the vicinity of $300 billion.

DARPA recently announced that it intends to harvest or recycle serviceable spare parts like antenna or solar panels from these defunct or decommisioned satellites if someobe can build for them the technology to make this possible. Here’s an excerpt from the DARPA solicitation:

More than $300 billion worth of satellites are estimated to be in the geosynchronous orbit. Many of these satellites have been retired due to normal end of useful life, obsolescence or failure; yet many still have valuable components, such as antennas, that could last much longer than the life of the satellite. [...]

One of the primary drivers of the high launch costs is the weight and volume of antennas. The repurposing of existing, retired antennas from the graveyard represents a potential for significant cost savings.

Phoenix specifically seeks technologies for developing a new class of small “satlets,” or nanosatellites, which can be sent more economically to the GEO region through existing ride-along services with commercial satellite launches and then robotically attached to the antenna of a nonfunctional cooperating satellite to essentially create a new space system.

Phoenix refers to project under which this proposed space debris recycling project will be run. The idea could potentially pave the way for efforts to clean up these orbits of debris as well as save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars in space defense missions expenditures.

Of course, it’s just an idea. In this day and age, though, no idea can be dismissed easily. No matter how quixotic. Recycling space junk. We’re probably 5 years away from seeing that on the Discovery Channel.

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Tags: News