The beautiful, marble-like photograph of Earth from space we’ve grown used to seeing isn’t really accurate. An estimated 300,000 plus pieces of metal debris orbit the earth, thousands of which are satellites that for various reasons no longer function. Now a U.S. Department of Defense program called Phoenix plans to capture some of these and repurpose them, to give them a chance at a second life.
The process would require complicated choreography of software, engineering, and deft maneuvering of robotic arms high above the Earth. A commercial servicing spacecraft would carry miniature “satlets” equipped with electronics, software, and propulsion into space. When reaching an old satellite antenna, robotic arms would attach a satlet and transform a piece of space junk into a fully functioning satellite.
The Defense Department estimates 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.
A number of Boston, Massachusetts area companies are currently working on this project. Among its many challenges, besides developing the technology to make it all work, are finding the satellites’ owners and having them agree to be guinea pigs to this innovative program.
Turning “space junk” into something useful is a great idea, but I’d rather see them find a way to scoop up the debris and bring it back to be recycled and reused. That would certainly help clear the debris field and make space just a little safer for folks on the International Space Station.