Pentagon Spends $180 Million To Capture And Recycle Space Junk From Dead Satellites

Every so often we hear about the danger of space debris - various satellite parts left hanging in the earth's orbit after the machines become inoperable. While there's yet to be an efficient plan detailing how to solve it, the Pentagon is at least going to try and salvage what it can.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is planning to spend $180 million on what is essentially an enormous recycling initiative that will involve rummaging through defunct satellites, collecting spare parts that still work, and reusing them in future projects.

The plan comes as the military looks to reduce the costs connected with manufacturing new space-bound machines.

"We're attempting to essentially increase the return on investment ... and try to find a way to really change the economics so that we can lower the cost" of future space missions, said DARPA program manager David Barnhart to the Associated Press.

The program, aptly named "Phoenix," has already started. Multiple companies have been granted contracts to develop the techniques and capabilities required to carry out the operation, and DARPA is planning to hear proposals in February.

If project Phoenix is successful, it will be a pretty remarkable achievement. When old satellites are retired, there are still multiple parts that still work, like solar panels or antennas. DARPA plans to send a robotic mechanic into orbit that can meet up with a satellite and strip its usable parts. As the robot scours for reusable chunks, the agency will also launch a separate set of mini satellites. When the robot is finished gathering parts, it will find the mini satellites and use the spare parts to thread them together and create a brand new communication system.

While DARPA's intention is to lower the cost of constructing new projects, it might not be until years down the road when the savings become real.

"The first few times you do this, it'll definitely be more expensive than just building the new antenna on your satellite from scratch. But in the long run, it might work out," said Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

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