DARPA challenge: Program satellites to salvage space tech

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has put out a challenge to the programming community to help address a vexing space challenge: how to harvest valuable components from retired or non-working satellites still spinning and tumbling around the planet.

The lack of gravity makes it difficult to manage the precision maneuvering necessary to salvage the precious flotsam and jetsam. So DARPA’s InSPIRE program (short for International Space Station SPHERES Integrated Research Experiments) is sponsoring what it calls the Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge to develop algorithms for guiding the maneuvers.

The challenge, which kicks off March 28, asks programmers from around the world to develop a “fuel-optimal control algorithm” to enable a satellite to capture a space object that’s in free float.


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During four weeklong rounds, the algorithms will be programmed into bowling-ball sized satellites called SPHERES (short for Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites) aboard the International Space Station. The algorithm will need to direct the SPHERES satellite to approach the moving object and maneuver itself to contact with the object via Velcro on the SPHERES satellites.

The winners of each round will be invited to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to view the finals via video link from the space stations, where the four algorithms will be programmed into SPHERES and tested.

“If a programming team can solve this challenge of autonomous space object capture, it could...benefit...any space servicing system in the future,” said Dave Barnhart, DARPA's program manager.


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Reader Comments

Tue, Mar 13, 2012 anonCoward

How about instead of salvaging the old useless satalites we just create missles that can blast them out of the sky. China did it... I say we show the world we can blast moving objects out of space. That would be much cooler to watch.. you could even broadcast that on national TV.

Mon, Mar 12, 2012 Daniel Macon, GA

Simply altering the capture device to add a bungee net on a sufficiently long robotic arm which can in turn draw the captured system into the velcro securing bay would decrease exponentionaly, the difficulty of creating the programming and building the secure capture system itself. Additionally a built in disaster arm release system would decrease the potential hazards to the transport vehicle itself. I hope someone involved in the project will see and appreciate the simplicity of this suggestion and implements it in some form to the benefit of our nation.

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