DARPA Aims to Redefine What’s Possible in Space

DARPA, the government agency that invented the Internet, announced a very innovative program last week. As reported in InformationWeek magazine, the agency wants to reuse the antennas of satellites retired from geostationary earth orbit (GEO)potentially leading the way to salvage hardware from  “300 billion worth of retired satellites.”

“Through its Phoenix program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will award $36 million to contractors to help it reuse some of the more than 1,300 satellites in GEO to create a new communications system for military personnel, according to a broad agency announcement posted on FedBizOpps.gov.”

DARPA’s commitment to building a robotic capability at GEO is highly commendable.  Here is an example of the USG taking a leap, not a little step, to advance the state of the do-able. It’s also highly encouraging that DARPA is implicitly endorsing the concepts of orbital repair and hosted payloads, two areas that can save the government billions and in which Intelsat General has extensive interest.   

This will not be happening tomorrow – the DARPA announcement establishes a timeline of one successful demonstration by 2016. And I don’t expect that there will the hundreds of satellites that can be repurposed.  Many of the antennas are on highly inclined “junked” spacecraft which are likely tumbling in such a manner as to be unsuitable for capture. 

However, DARPA’s Phoenix mission does much more than demonstrate in-orbit repair and re-use of spacecraft. It establishes that robotic capability is in the realm of the possible.  It builds excitement in our society (including our schools) that we can do fun things in space.  That’s the kind of message we expect from the agency that launched the network that eventually blossomed into the Internet as we know it today.

We can fix and reuse rather than just throw away. What a great motivation to inspire a “green” generation to study math and science!

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