October 21st, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Military to take recycling to new heights

From CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo

The military wants to start a recycling program. In space.

Some 25,000 miles above the Earth lies a satellite graveyard, the resting place for out-of-commission satellites.

The military's research branch is announcing the Phoenix program to find a way to use parts from these retired satellites, especially components like expensive antennas that are often in good working order well after the satellites are retired.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency estimates about 100 of the junkyard satellites, both military and commercial, may have parts that can be repurposed, according to David Barnhart, the agency's program manager.

"If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource," said Regina Dugan, the agency's director.

The plan is for parts like an antenna to be removed from the dead satellite. Then new technologies and electronics would be robotically placed on the part, in essence creating a new satellite.

"The Phoenix demonstration is tackling the very hard activities and technologies required to 'reuse' an existing on-orbit component, which now exists as a non-functional entity as it is retired," Barnhart said. "The techniques demonstrated will allow for the possibility of future satellites being launched that can take advantage of previously launched satellite components."

The program may show that in the future satellites could be launched without key components like antennas or unfurled solar arrays, and then join with the recycled components in space to for the completed unit.

If successful, the research projects agency claims, the recycling program could save the Defense Department a significant amount of money on launching new satellites. Launch costs, it says, are primarily driven by the weight and volume of antennas.

"Today, satellites are not designed to be reused. Phoenix may enable a new generation of satellites and markets that deal in recycled components, much like any other vehicle or system made on Earth," Barnhart said.

The agency says it will solicit candidate satellites from retired U.S. government-owned and -operated satellites to participate in the program, but will also accept "volunteer" candidates from retired U.S.-based commercial satellites.

Contractors interested in submitting a proposal to be apart of the program can begin the process in December. The agency expects work on the technology to begin early in 2012, with a demonstration not projected to occur until 2015.

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