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Monday, July 23, 2012

Draper Works with DARPA to Recycle U.S. Satellites on Project Phoenix

CAMBRIDGE, MA – Draper Laboratory is working with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in geosynchronous orbit and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is funding the work, believes that the Phoenix concept may ultimately cut the cost and time of deploying new satellites to support U.S. warfighter communications needs worldwide.

DARPA aims to demonstrate Phoenix in space in 2015 by taking an antenna from a non-working communications spacecraft and reconfiguring it into a “new system.”

DARPA believes that many satellites that have been retired or have failed early and put into the graveyard orbit still have usable antennas, solar arrays and
other components with significant residual lifetime and value.

The Phoenix program includes developing two components – a servicing satellite and a batch of “satlets” housed in a payload orbital delivery system (PODS) that can “ride along” on a commercial spacecraft 22,000 miles above the Earth to GEO, where most communications satellites are located.

The servicing spacecraft and PODS would rendezvous in space, where the servicer harvests an antenna from a non-functioning communications satellite by prior agreement with its owner, and attaches it to the satlets. The resulting aggregated spacecraft rises from the remains of retired assets to provide a new capability.

Draper brings experience from its work on NASA programs like the International Space Station (ISS) that can play a key role in enabling the satlets to fit into a tiny package that is inexpensive to launch while providing long term operations for the new satellite capability.

The Laboratory plans to equip the satlets with attitude control software based on its “Zero Propellant Maneuver.” The software has been demonstrated in space with the International Space Station as well as NASA’s TRACE mission, and can enable a spacecraft to maintain a stable orientation without the use of thrusters. Draper’s approach not only provides a size reduction that can drive down launch cost, but can extend the spacecraft’s new orbital lifetime by removing one of the key reasons for obsolescence – prematurely running out of fuel.

Draper has worked with the U.S. government on previous programs that demonstrated the ability to rendezvous with a spacecraft in orbit, including the military’s Orbital Express mission. Draper also supported Orbital Sciences in its work with NASA on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Service (COTS), which is intended to deliver cargo to the ISS.

“Creating new space systems at greatly reduced cost requires moving away from traditional processes and subsystem development. Draper’s past experiences in space programs complement the Phoenix objectives and position us to help the U.S. achieve its goals.” said Brad Moran, Draper’s Phoenix program manager.

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