Servicer/tender grips donor satellite with one robot arm as it severs the boom-carrying
antenna with another.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Concept

DARPA’s GEO Satellite Recycling Plan On Schedule

By Graham Warwick
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
February 04, 2013

Graham Warwick
Washington

Reusing hardware already in orbit, rather than launching a new spacecraft, could dramatically cut the cost of providing military satellite communications, but requires a technology leap to enable robotic servicing in geosynchronous orbit and beyond.

Under the Phoenix demonstration planned for 2016, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to show that a robotic vehicle can remove the antenna from a retired spacecraft in graveyard orbit and attach systems to it to rebuild a functioning communications satellite in geostationary orbit (GEO).

Phoenix aims to “increase the return on investment for Defense Department space missions by really lowering the cost,” says David Barnhart, Darpa program manager. The program centers on developing “a different way of building spacecraft, with some level on on-orbit assembly to add hardware and use what is already up there.”

Although antennas average only 2-3% of a communications satellite’s mass, the cost of the spacecraft increases proportionally with aperture size, in turn driving the size of booster and cost of launch into GEO. “The dollars per specific mass is not that high for an antenna, but if you have to send up a large satellite on a large booster the cost is very high,” he says.

An example is the $350 million sticker price on NASA’s TRDS-K data-relay satellite, with its two 4.9-meter-dia. (16-ft.) unfolding parabolic antennas, and the likely $200 million price tag for its launch in January by Atlas V. “The cost depends on the size of the antenna. With a large commercial aperture, say 18 meters, this architecture could provide a potential 10 times reduction,” he says.

Read more: Darpa’s GEO Satellite Recycling Plan On Schedule — Aviation Week & Space Technology.

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