Breaking the mold to recycle old satellites

Breaking the mold to recycle old satellites

USA Today

Breaking the mold to recycle old satellites

For Talbot Jaeger and NovaWurks, the Pentagon’s plan to recycle dead satellites is a match made in heaven, or at least in geosynchronous orbit.

Jaeger, the founder and chief technologist of the Los Alamitos, Calif.-based company, has a mission to loosen the government ties on space exploration. “The perception of the industry is that it’s stodgy and bureaucratic,” he said. “We’re going at the entire process to reduce the costs and time to orbit.”

At the heart of NovaWurks’ business is the “conformal spacecraft,” which the company calls a “flexible, modular solution able to ‘conform’ to the shape and capability requirements of any payload.”

Enter the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Project Phoenix, which aims to recycle the billions of dollars worth of dead satellites floating around the Earth in geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above the planet. NovaWurks has the first and largest DARPA contract for the program, which hopes to have an “on-orbit” demonstration next year or in 2016.

NovaWurks will develop its conformal spacecraft for DARPA in the hopes the craft can be sent into orbit with another payload and then be directed to one of the many dead and abandoned satellites, where it will be attached and used to revive the old satellite.

NovaWurks’ Hyper Integrated Satlet (HISat) will then use the old satellite’s large reflector antennas to communicate and start a new mission.

“There are number of reasons why a satellite’s life will end,” Jaeger said. “It will run out of propellant. The motors that make it work can run out, or the electronics on board will suffer from radiation and stop working. They all have specific lifetimes, and they all have components that can break.”

The beauty of the large reflectors, which can be up to 45 feet wide, is that “they have no moving parts,” Jaeger said. “They’re not limited by propellants.”

Phoenix is part of what Jaeger calls a “paradigm shift” in space exploration, as the government and private industry move from overly bureaucratic programs to cheaper, more nimble ones. That’s certainly a priority for the Pentagon, which has issued calls to industry for cheaper ways to run unmanned drones and satellites that provide what the military calls intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“It’s a different paradigm,” Jaeger said. “There are people in this field who believe in that shift and do not want to make this into a government-owned and locked market. That’s how we got into it. (Phoenix) fits perfectly into what we’ve been doing.”