Pentagon seeks to scavenge dead satellites

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LOS ANGELES -- Call it space grave robbery for a cause: Imagine scavenging defunct communication satellites for their valuable parts and recycling them to build brand new ones more cheaply.

It's the latest pet project from the Pentagon's research wing, known for its quirky and sometimes out-there ideas. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending $180 million to test technologies that could make this possible.

When satellites retire, certain parts -- such as antennas and solar panels -- often still work. There's no routine effort to salvage and reuse satellite parts once they're launched into space. DARPA thinks it can save money by repurposing in orbit.

"We're attempting to essentially increase the return on investment . . . and try to find a way to really change the economics so that we can lower the cost" of military space missions, said DARPA program manager David Barnhart.

Work on DARPA's Phoenix program, named after the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes, is already under way. The agency awarded contracts to several companies to develop new technologies, and next month it is seeking fresh proposals from interested parties.

A key test will come in 2016 when it launches a demonstration mission that seeks to breathe new life into an antenna from a yet-to-be-determined decommissioned satellite. DARPA has identified about 140 retired satellites for that first test.

Here's the vision: Launch a robotic mechanic outfitted with a tool kit that can rendezvous with defunct satellites and mine them for parts. The plan also calls for separately launching mini-satellites. The robotic mechanic would string them together with old satellite parts to create a new communication system. It would be like doing robotic surgery in zero gravity.

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