Menu
DARPA envisages robotic satellite repair missions

DARPA envisages robotic satellite repair missions

Robotics could revolutionise the satellite telecommunications industry

A former astronaut working at DARPA believes a new breed of robotics could revolutionize the satellite telecommunications industry, bringing better services to consumers and resulting in less space junk.

Pam Melroy is working on technology that could lead to robotic servicing, refueling and upgrading missions to satellites thousands of miles from earth, well beyond the range of astronauts.

“Space robotics can create a revolution,” she said in an interview with the IDG News Service on the sidelines of DARPA’s Wait, What? conference in St. Louis. Melroy is deputy director of the tactical technology office at DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Defense Department.

Her target and that of DARPA's Phoenix program is the numerous telecommunications satellites that sit 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above the equator and deliver television, Internet and other services to consumers, businesses and governments around the world.

That spot, 90 times the altitude of the International Space Station, is chosen because it’s where the orbiting speed of the satellite matches that of the earth so, when viewed from the ground, the satellite always appears to be in the same place in the sky.

The advantage is satellite reception with a cheap, fixed dish, but there are several disadvantages. The satellites are almost impossible to get to and, when their life ends, they have to be blasted into a junk orbit, further polluting space.

So Melroy is coming up with a better option.

150911 darpa melroy Martyn Williams

Pam Melroy, deputy director of DARPA's tactical technology office, speaks at the organization’s Wait, What? conference in St. Louis on Sept. 10, 2015.

She envisages a robotic service station that could sit in orbit and carry out upgrade, repair and refueling missions for the satellites already up there.

It’s an ambitious idea, but that’s what DARPA is all about.

Currently, telecommunications satellites last about 15 years — usually determined by the amount of fuel on board. When it runs out, the boosters that provide occasional bumps to keep it in place can no longer operate so its position cannot be controlled. That’s when they're junked.

Over that 15 year lifespan, the technology on board doesn’t change so it’s limited to whatever is state-of-the-art at the time of construction — imagine using a 15-year-old computer or cell phone — and should something break, it can’t be fixed.

Enter the robots.

150911 darpa phoenix 2 DARPA

An artist's rendition of DARPA's Phoenix satellite program.

“Right now, we don’t build satellites to be serviced, but once we have that capability, then you can start seeing things like modular, serviceable satellites that become routine,” she said.

If realized, it could be a game-changer in the telecommunications industry, which spends several hundreds of millions of dollars to build, launch and operate each satellite.

“We talked to companies like Intelsat and Eutelsat,” she said, naming two of the world’s biggest owners of telecommunications satellites.

“They are very interested in refueling and that’s because they have transponders that work. It’s a huge investment up front, but once it’s up there, there’s a huge desire for video from the ground.”

She said the U.S. military, which operates its own communications satellites at that altitude, isn’t as interested in refueling as it is in upgrades.

“They want the latest and greatest capabilities. Their satellites are up there for 30 years at a time and they want the latest thing, whatever it is, so upgrading is of most interest to national security.”

Here’s Melroy’s speech at the DARPA conference:

Follow Us

Join the New Zealand Reseller News newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Slideshows

Top 50 defining moments of the New Zealand channel in 2016

Top 50 defining moments of the New Zealand channel in 2016

Reseller News looks back on a tumultuous 12 months for the New Zealand channel, assessing the fallout from a year of sizeable industry change. Whether it be local or global mergers and acquisitions, distribution deals or job changes, the channel that started the year differs somewhat to the one set to finish it - Reseller News assesses the key moments that made 2016.​

Top 50 defining moments of the New Zealand channel in 2016
​Hewlett Packard Enterprise honours high achieving NZ channel

​Hewlett Packard Enterprise honours high achieving NZ channel

Hewlett Packard Enterprise honoured its top performing Kiwi partners at the second running of its HPE Partner Awards in New Zealand, held at a glitzy ceremony in Auckland. Recognising excellence across eight categories - from distributors to resellers - the tech giant celebrated its first year as a standalone company, following its official split from HP in 2015.

​Hewlett Packard Enterprise honours high achieving NZ channel
Nutanix treats channel partners to Christmas cruise

Nutanix treats channel partners to Christmas cruise

Nutanix recently took to the seas for a Christmas Cruise around Sydney Harbour with its Australia and New Zealand staff, customers and partners to celebrate a stellar year for the vendor. With the sun out, they were all smiles and mingled over drinks and food.

Nutanix treats channel partners to Christmas cruise
Show Comments