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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