Author Topic: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program  (Read 24017 times)

Offline a_langwich

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http://www.spacenews.com/article/financial-report/37659darpa-awards-40-million-contract-for-orbital-salvage-demo

$40 million contract to Novawurks, to use their "satlet" to retrieve an antenna from a satellite in a graveyard orbit.

When I first read the article, I was thinking of "salvage" as orbital debris mitigation, which this is not.  In that context, going to satellites in graveyard orbits isn't the first choice, nor is monkeying around with them in a way that might conceivably produce more debris.  So don't make the mistake I made.  :)

My second thought was that the big dish on modern satellites may be the floppiest and most delicate piece of hardware to tackle (since many are now unfolded on orbit), and they (DARPA/Novawurks) better have detailed schematics of the satellite and a very comprehensive plan on how to remove it, even given the fanciest of robotic arms and equipment.  A large antenna slightly out of shape = worthless.  A large antenna not impedance-matched to the transmitter = worth less.  A large antenna designed for a different frequency spectrum than the one you plan to use = might not be worth much.

My third thought was, "I wonder if this satlet thing would fit in the payload bay of an OTV?"

My fourth thought was, screw the antenna, let's grab a power supply and SEP propulsion and perhaps a way to swap in newer digital imaging hardware, and go for a KH-11!  That is, don't plan to take a component from a satellite, plan to be a "head crab" that attaches to a satellite and re-animates and repurposes it.  Hubbles for all!

My fifth thought came back around full circle.  I don't see, given orbital mechanics and launch prices and obsolescence of hardware, that this will ever have much use.  Which, unfortunately, may be very different from whether DARPA/USAF will throw lots of money at it.  Targeted at satellites of foreign origin, it would be a poor replacement for 1) nearby sensors to figure out what a part was doing or 2) a simple ASAT or deorbiting technology to cripple or remove a satellite.  Given that, I wish they would spend the money instead on debris mitigation / de-orbiting technology demonstrations.  It would probably serve them better in the long run.

What do you think?

Offline Archibald

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #1 on: 10/19/2013 10:07 AM »
It's DARPA doing its job of DARPA - trying crazy things on a military, shoestring budget so that, if the said thing fails, no one will complain. And if that yield some positive results, then they will share it with the outside world (sooner or later) and everybody will be happy and benefit from it.
Over the last thirty years or more a lot of organizations have literally agonized over satellite servicing or not. DARPA is doing his best to try and unlock that situation...
« Last Edit: 10/19/2013 10:08 AM by Archibald »

Offline baldusi

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #2 on: 10/19/2013 04:05 PM »
On the other hand, an antenna for your desired band will be useful and probably the least likely to be obsolete. And DARPA exist to try the almost impossible or what looks like ridiculous at first.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #3 on: 10/19/2013 08:57 PM »
It's DARPA doing its job of DARPA - trying crazy things on a military, shoestring budget so that, if the said thing fails, no one will complain. And if that yield some positive results, then they will share it with the outside world (sooner or later) and everybody will be happy and benefit from it.
Over the last thirty years or more a lot of organizations have literally agonized over satellite servicing or not. DARPA is doing his best to try and unlock that situation...


You've pretty much described DARPA. Their biggest strength is that high personnel turnover (by design) means that they get new people willing to try new things. Their biggest weakness is probably that their high turnover means that they have no institutional memory and try things that have been tried in the past and failed. Certainly it is possible that new technology makes it possible to do things now that have not worked in the past, but not always. Sometimes things don't work because they can't work (or are dumb). DARPA has a public reputation for its successes, but it has failed a lot too.

I don't know the particulars behind Phoenix, but I can sort of guess. One of the problems with refueling schemes that various people and companies have proposed over the years is that refueling only gets you an obsolete satellite. As one very knowledgeable guy I know (who has worked on a lot of expensive satellite programs over the decades) put it: "Do you buy a new battery for a five-year-old laptop?" No, the technology is so much better that you upgrade.

Phoenix may be taking this into account, recognizing that you don't want the electronics from old satellites. They're old. And you may not be able to count on their reliability. So what do you want? You'd want the simplest still-useable thing you could get off a satellite, which is the antenna.

On the one hand that seems to make some sense. On the other hand... HUH? How much value are you going to get from that antenna? Is the equipment necessary for rendezvousing with the satellite and removing the antenna worth the cost of the antenna? Are you really going to save any money? By my reasoning, you have to launch an expensive piece of equipment (satellite rendezvous and cutter/manipulator) in order to grab a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment. It's kinda like buying a $1000 crusher to crush a $0.02 aluminum can for recycling. That makes sense if you can get the volume high. But how's that going to work for satellites?

But I've seen space money spent on stupider things.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #4 on: 10/19/2013 08:59 PM »
I should add to the above one thing that has always puzzled me about DARPA: how do they choose what new technology ideas to fund? If that process is sound, then I'd have confidence in them. But if they are just pulling these things out of a hat (or worse), with no analysis ahead of time, then I'd be worried. Is there a better technology for them to invest in?

Offline jongoff

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #5 on: 10/19/2013 10:31 PM »
What do you think?

I was a PI on one of the smaller DARPA Phoenix Phase 1 contracts (and my startup was also a sub to another JPL-led effort that was also part of Phase 1), so I think I grok what Dave is trying to achieve with Phoenix. I personally think it's a really neat program, and that they've got a decent logical rationale behind a lot of the technical decisions that are kind of hard to convey in a quick "we won a contract" press release like the one you quoted to start the thread.

Unfortunately, while it's an open program, DARPA still requires all of us who had contracts to run any public comments through their DISTAR approval process, which typically takes a while (up to a month), which makes commenting on a forum (or tweets or blog posts) somewhat slower than I'd like. They have however approved some materials for release over the past year though, and some of those might shed some light on the program and the logic behind it. Let me see if I can dig some of those up and share them on this thread. While I don't agree 100% on every last detail of logic for the program, I still think it's a neat idea that I really hope we get a chance to see fly.

~Jon

Offline robertross

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #6 on: 10/19/2013 11:30 PM »
What do you think?

Unfortunately, while it's an open program, DARPA still requires all of us who had contracts to run any public comments through their DISTAR approval process, which typically takes a while (up to a month), which makes commenting on a forum (or tweets or blog posts) somewhat slower than I'd like. They have however approved some materials for release over the past year though, and some of those might shed some light on the program and the logic behind it. Let me see if I can dig some of those up and share them on this thread. While I don't agree 100% on every last detail of logic for the program, I still think it's a neat idea that I really hope we get a chance to see fly.

~Jon

That would be cool to see.
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Offline jongoff

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #7 on: 10/21/2013 06:56 PM »
That would be cool to see.

Here are a few resources that have been approved for public release:
http://ssco.gsfc.nasa.gov/workshop_2012/Barnhart_final_presentation_2012_workshop.pdf

This was an overview of the program that Dave Barnhart (the PM) gave at a satellite servicing meeting in 2012, shortly before the Phase 1 efforts started. I'd pay particular attention to the goals on page 6 of the presentation.

Attached are two papers and associated presentations from an AIAA conference a year ago. They were all as I understand it, approved for unlimited distribution, so I think I'm ok sharing them here.

The first set deal with the concept of satellite cellularization (using "Satlets"), and the second deals with the economic logic behind their concept of reusing apertures.

I know there were a lot of updates at SPACE 2013, but I didn't have copies of those, and you'd probably need to pay to view them at the AIAA site.

~Jon

Offline Solman

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #8 on: 10/22/2013 12:40 AM »
 At the bottom of page 2 of the "Economics of Repurposing in situ retired spacecraft components" paper assembly in space to build very large apertures for RF and optical systems is mentioned. This relates to something I had been wondering about lately. Taken to the extreme, might three huge antennas with appropriate electronics, built in GEO, be able to replace cell phone towers by allowing 2 way comm with existing cellphones directly?
 That would be what - a trillion dollar business? 

Offline a_langwich

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #9 on: 10/23/2013 12:13 AM »
Thanks Jon! 

Good reading.  I'd have to agree that I don't agree with every last detail of logic, although I don't need to be as politically sensitive as that.  :)

Nor does it excite me as much as the Tethers Unlimited proposal to build structure in space using 3D printers--that's something that flat out should be funded for development studies on orbit.  It's a stretch, but at least a stretch toward a clearly functional system.  For Phoenix, there are various troubling gaps and questions in the overall system for me, although I think there's a lot of merit in exploring several of the pieces.  All their pictures show the salvaged antenna with miraculously small "satlet" electronics, but where is the power generation (eg solar panels)?  May be the follow-on program to Phoenix? 

The Payload Orbit Delivery (POD) subsystem:  was that developed under Phase 1?

And then a Tender/Servicer spacecraft--is that what they plan to develop now, or is it partly done already?  It seems like it is similar to a long line of satellite-servicing ideas.  Does salvaging improve the economics over servicing?  Still, a working design would be a good testbed for many, many ideas. 

Did Novawurks develop the "satlet" stuff, which if I'm reading the presentation right should be launched on/in a POD, or did it develop the Tender/Servicer spacecraft?  Or are they combining the prototype satlet stuff with prototype pieces of the T/S, and launching a test of that?

I wonder what somebody with a lot of experience in the satellite-building industry, who could give a pretty thorough breakdown of various satellites and their cost by subsystem, would say about this project?  A satellite-builder "Jim" who might perform this function for the DARPA PM: 
.   

;)

Offline jongoff

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #10 on: 10/23/2013 08:03 PM »
Thanks Jon! 

Good reading.  I'd have to agree that I don't agree with every last detail of logic, although I don't need to be as politically sensitive as that.  :)

Nor does it excite me as much as the Tethers Unlimited proposal to build structure in space using 3D printers--that's something that flat out should be funded for development studies on orbit.  It's a stretch, but at least a stretch toward a clearly functional system.  For Phoenix, there are various troubling gaps and questions in the overall system for me, although I think there's a lot of merit in exploring several of the pieces.  All their pictures show the salvaged antenna with miraculously small "satlet" electronics, but where is the power generation (eg solar panels)?  May be the follow-on program to Phoenix? 

The Payload Orbit Delivery (POD) subsystem:  was that developed under Phase 1?

And then a Tender/Servicer spacecraft--is that what they plan to develop now, or is it partly done already?  It seems like it is similar to a long line of satellite-servicing ideas.  Does salvaging improve the economics over servicing?  Still, a working design would be a good testbed for many, many ideas. 

Did Novawurks develop the "satlet" stuff, which if I'm reading the presentation right should be launched on/in a POD, or did it develop the Tender/Servicer spacecraft?  Or are they combining the prototype satlet stuff with prototype pieces of the T/S, and launching a test of that?

I wonder what somebody with a lot of experience in the satellite-building industry, who could give a pretty thorough breakdown of various satellites and their cost by subsystem, would say about this project?  A satellite-builder "Jim" who might perform this function for the DARPA PM: 
.   

;)

One important note to keep in mind is that these presentations were all given before Phase 1 was underway. A lot of your concerns have been addressed since then, but I don't have any copies of their SPACE 2013 papers, so I don't know how much of that has been addressed in a way that's approved for public release.

But a couple of questions that I do think are save to answer:

1- NovaWurks was doing satlet stuff, they were not doing the servicer/tender, that was another group
2- They did address the power generation side of things for satlets during Phase 1

~Jon
« Last Edit: 10/23/2013 08:08 PM by jongoff »

Offline Robotbeat

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #11 on: 10/23/2013 09:32 PM »
...One of the problems with refueling schemes that various people and companies have proposed over the years is that refueling only gets you an obsolete satellite. As one very knowledgeable guy I know (who has worked on a lot of expensive satellite programs over the decades) put it: "Do you buy a new battery for a five-year-old laptop?"...
Hey, I do! ;)
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Offline jongoff

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #12 on: 10/25/2013 08:41 PM »
En
...One of the problems with refueling schemes that various people and companies have proposed over the years is that refueling only gets you an obsolete satellite. As one very knowledgeable guy I know (who has worked on a lot of expensive satellite programs over the decades) put it: "Do you buy a new battery for a five-year-old laptop?"...
Hey, I do! ;)

End of Life disposal services, like what Dennis Wingo pitched as part of his business plan yesterday at the NewSpace Biz Plan Competition, seem to make more sense. For GEO satellites, the prop to move from GEO to graveyard orbit is equivalent to something like 6-9mos of stationkeeping. Adding an extra 6-9 mos of stationkeeping for a fraction of the revenue stream makes more sense than refueling a 15year old satellite.

~Jon

Offline Solman

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #13 on: 10/26/2013 07:00 PM »
En
...One of the problems with refueling schemes that various people and companies have proposed over the years is that refueling only gets you an obsolete satellite. As one very knowledgeable guy I know (who has worked on a lot of expensive satellite programs over the decades) put it: "Do you buy a new battery for a five-year-old laptop?"...
Hey, I do! ;)

End of Life disposal services, like what Dennis Wingo pitched as part of his business plan yesterday at the NewSpace Biz Plan Competition, seem to make more sense. For GEO satellites, the prop to move from GEO to graveyard orbit is equivalent to something like 6-9mos of stationkeeping. Adding an extra 6-9 mos of stationkeeping for a fraction of the revenue stream makes more sense than refueling a 15year old satellite.

~Jon
Good point but it seems odd that a short life extension is valuable while a long extension is not. MDA has demonstrated much of the refueling tech already and the cost difference between refueling a sat and moving a sat to a graveyard orbit is likely not that great is it? In both cases the servicer must rendezvous and grapple the sat and carry propellant. Both must be used multiple times to be cost effective although the refueler must likely be resupplied since it must carry more propellant which ups its cost. Still a sat that is currently giving customers sat TV will continue to perform this service for perhaps many more years for a fraction of the cost of a new sat. The new sat may be superior technologically but in both cases the customer still gets their MTV. The new sat may do more better faster than the old one but both do the job and extending the life of the old one is perhaps much cheaper. The new tech is superior in comparison to launching a sat with the old tech but perhaps not more cost effective when compared to extending the old sat's lifetime.
 Another possibility is moving the old sat to a new slot to serve new customers at a lower cost than a service provider would have to charge if a new sat was used. Your five year old laptop might be quite valuable to someone who can't afford a new one but can afford a battery.

Offline Jim

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #14 on: 11/15/2013 10:40 PM »
Taken to the extreme, might three huge antennas with appropriate electronics, built in GEO, be able to replace cell phone towers by allowing 2 way comm with existing cellphones directly?
 That would be what - a trillion dollar business? 

No, the latency would make it nonviable and therefore a 0$ business

Offline Jim

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #15 on: 11/15/2013 10:42 PM »
Your five year old laptop might be quite valuable to someone who can't afford a new one but can afford a battery.

But replacing the battery costs as much as a new laptop

Offline Jim

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #16 on: 11/15/2013 10:44 PM »

1.  MDA has demonstrated much of the refueling tech already
2.   the cost difference between refueling a sat and moving a sat to a graveyard orbit is likely not that great is it?

1.  No, they have not.   Especially, not with a spacecraft that is not designed for it.

2.  It is magnitudes greater.

Offline GuessWho

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #17 on: 11/16/2013 02:49 PM »

1.  No, they have not.   Especially, not with a spacecraft that is not designed for it.

2.  It is magnitudes greater.

1.  Yes, the technologies have been ground tested.  At MDA and at NASA.  NASA is flight testing those technologies on-orbit at ISS.

2.  No, it is not "magnitudes" greater.  Graveyarding costs 2-3 months of effective satellite revenue thus on the order of $10-$12M in lost revenue.  Prior business arrangement have shown that refueling is worth $10M-$12M per year of added life per satellite to an owner operator.

Offline Jim

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #18 on: 11/16/2013 04:03 PM »

1.  Yes, the technologies have been ground tested.  At MDA and at NASA.  NASA is flight testing those technologies on-orbit at ISS.

2.  No, it is not "magnitudes" greater.  Graveyarding costs 2-3 months of effective satellite revenue thus on the order of $10-$12M in lost revenue.  Prior business arrangement have shown that refueling is worth $10M-$12M per year of added life per satellite to an owner operator.

1.  Ground testing does not qualify "demonstrated" for flight operations

2. Business arrangements that were never carried out do not qualify as proof.

Offline jongoff

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Re: DARPA Phoenix Satellite Service and Salvage program
« Reply #19 on: 11/16/2013 05:43 PM »

1.  Yes, the technologies have been ground tested.  At MDA and at NASA.  NASA is flight testing those technologies on-orbit at ISS.

2.  No, it is not "magnitudes" greater.  Graveyarding costs 2-3 months of effective satellite revenue thus on the order of $10-$12M in lost revenue.  Prior business arrangement have shown that refueling is worth $10M-$12M per year of added life per satellite to an owner operator.

1.  Ground testing does not qualify "demonstrated" for flight operations

Jim... haven't you seen the Robotic Refueling Mission videos? They've been testing it on orbit on ISS on simulated task boards. That may not be TRL 9 yet, but that should count for something, even to a skeptic, shouldn't it?

Quote
2. Business arrangements that were never carried out do not qualify as proof.

While it is true that nobody has demonstrated the business case closes...isn't that true of even of successful business models before someone has made them work the first time? I agree there's room for *some* skepticism, particularly about timing and busines model closure at this point in time. But there's plenty of examples of technologies or business models that people thought of long before all the pieces were there to make them happen. Cars and heavier than air flight come to mind for instance.

~Jon

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