Recycling in Space for Better SATCOM – The Phoenix Program

This month my company Intelsat General was awarded a contract by the U.S. Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of an exciting project designed to demonstrate how satellites can be serviced in orbit.

The project, known as Phoenix, has a goal of launching a technology-demonstration mission by 2016 using a new robotic servicer spacecraft that would recycle satellite hardware already in space. It will do this by taking the apertures off older, decommissioned commercial satellites and attaching them to new, small satellite subsystem components.

These smaller satellite components called “satlets” will be carried into space as hosted payloads within a container called a PODS (Payload Orbital Delivery System) on geostationary satellites.  Once in space, the PODS will be met by a robotic vehicle that will capture the PODS, take the PODS to the aperture, remove the satlets from the PODS and attach the satlets to the recycled aperture.

Intelsat General is one of many contractors taking part in the demonstration project. Specifically, we’ll be working with both the PODS team and the team developing the hosted payload interface that makes the recycling process possible.  Our goal is to ensure that the end result is a non-proprietary hosting solution that is both technically possible and financially attractive for all parties.

While the green goal of reusing orbiting “space junk” certainly reflects global concerns regarding mitigation of orbital debris, the bigger picture is that the USG has stepped in to fund the development of a robotic space capability which will serve all satellite operators – both commercial and government.  Without DARPA’s initial backing, and given the technical risks involved, commercial industry would struggle to put together an attractive business plan to fund a robotic demonstration mission.

Intelsat General’s parent company, Intelsat S.A., is the world’s leading commercial satellite operator, with 53 spacecraft in geostationary orbit. So we certainly have an interest in extending the useful life of existing satellites, while also reducing the amount of debris in space.

If Phoenix is a success, it may pave the road for more efficient and economical SATCOM for both government and private sector customers.