A recent DARPA news release highlights their Phoenix program. As the name suggests, the goal of the program is give dead space junk a new life. All those dead satellites still have lots of re-usable parts such as antennas and solar arrays. DARPA hopes to develop a robot that can harvest usable parts from space junk and add them to a new class of nano satellites designed to take advantage of the old parts. From the news release:
The first keystone mission of the Phoenix program in 2015 plans to demonstrate harvesting an existing, cooperative, retired satellite aperture, by physically separating it from the host non-working satellite using on-orbit grappling tools controlled remotely from earth. The aperture will then be reconfigured into a ‘new’ free-flying space system and operated independently to demonstrate the concept of space “re-use.”
As robot-builders, we've probably all gone dumpster-diving at one point or another to scavenge high-tech trash from which to build robots. So we'll be watching to see how these dumpster-diving space bots work out. DARPA hopes to involve "non-traditional space communities" in the program to help with design and development. For more details, see the original Phoenix project solicitation. Read on to see a cool little video of a simulated mission in which the space-bot collects spare parts from old satellites.