The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have teamed up to build new satellites that could potentially be used to refuel and repair other satellites.
Known as “service stations in orbit,” these versatile satellites could prove invaluable in space missions. Normally, satellites degrade and wear down rather quickly above Earth’s atmosphere. When they sustain enough damage and wear, they must be repaired; otherwise, they’ll either fall down to Earth or contribute to the already massive amount of space junk floating around in space. DARPA and NASA, however, believe they can prolong the lifespan of satellites by using service stations in orbit.
The general idea is to build satellites that are capable of monitoring and repairing existing satellites in orbit. Rather than simply scrapping a damaged satellite, the service stations in orbit could find and fix the respective satellite. Of course, this project could save NASA billions of dollars in the long run. With satellites costing millions, sometimes even billions of dollars, the service stations in orbit could save the space agency a lot of money. Even if a service station in orbit extends the life of a satellite by just a few years, that can translate into millions of dollars.
“If successful, the agencies would have fleets of robots with arms and cameras that could inspect, refuel and repair satellites, keeping them operational well beyond their expected lifetimes. The spacecraft might even upgrade the satellites they service with the latest technology, like an iPhone update,” wrote the Washington Post when announcing the partnership.
Furthermore, the service stations in space could be used to clean up space trash. Statistics show that more than 25,000 man-made objects large than a fist are currently floating around in Earth’s orbit. However, there are more than half a million objects larger than a dime floating around in Earth’s orbit. DARPA believes its new service stations in orbit could be used to clean up some of this space trash. Using autonomous technology, they can seek out and collect trash, reducing orbital junk.
But service stations in orbit have another potential use. In addition to repairing damaged satellites and cleaning up space trash, they could also be used to attack mechanical enemies in hostile forces in space. It may sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but space warfare is a very real possibility that’s expected to become increasingly more likely in the near future.