Recycling in Space
Orbital space junk surrounding earth.
Recycling isn’t just something people do on planet Earth. Satellites orbiting the Earth are about to be recycled by the Department of Defense.
Old or broken satellites that have been floating in space are going to be repaired and put back into use rather than being replaced by new ones. Here’s how it will work, according to the Boston Globe: Miniature “satlets,” equipped with electronics, software, and propulsion, will ride along on commercial flights into space where a servicing spacecraft will then pick them up satlets and stow them approached an old antenna. The robotic arms of the spacecraft will then be used to attach a satlet and transform a piece of space junk into a working satellite.
“There are a good number of retired spacecraft that are perfectly functioning, but either ran out of fuel or got taken over by [newer] technology,” Seamus Tuohy, director of space systems at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, told the Boston Globe. “Getting a rather large antenna up in orbit is a rather costly thing, so when they’re up there you want to utilize them to their fullest.”
The Defense Department estimates that 140 commercial satellites with salvageable antennas or other equipment sit in a so-called “graveyard orbit” and could be repurposed if the right technology were available.
More than 20 companies and government laboratories are working on the project, which has $44.5 million in funding through fiscal year 2013. If the project is successful, the agency estimates it could provide a way to get satellites into space at a tenth of the cost, with hopes of doing a demonstration in which they turn a defunct satellite into a “new” one in 2015, the Globe reports.