WASHINGTON: Imagine self-healing satellites built in space. One sensor breaks down and another sensor elsewhere on the satellite takes up the slack. And the satellites are launched in modular pieces, on a series of different rockets, then are assembled by a robot arm in orbit. Parts can be replaced. The satellite can be refueled to prolong its operational life. This isn’t yet the space dock servicing the USS Enterprise, but it may mark the first steps toward such a capability.

It’s the stuff of science fiction and, as often happens, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) is the place experimenting with the new technologies and concepts of operations to make it real. Since the program, known as Phoenix, is expected to consume a tiny $40 million to $50 million this year (in its third year), don’t expect miracles any time soon.

Today, satellites have to be built with the knowledge that once they go into orbit they’re on their own. If something goes wrong or they just get old and die, there’s little that can be done beyond sending corrective signals to them from Earth and hoping they fix the problem. Phoenix would change that equation.

Part of the approach, Phoenix program manager David Barnhart says, relies on what he calls “satlets,” small, self-contained pieces of satellites that would be plugged together to create the larger birds. The original Phoenix concept, as its name implies, was to bring old satellites back to life by refueling them or sticking new sensors or other gear such as communications transponders on them.

The Phoniex program has already built a prototype robot arm to help refuel, repair, or build those satellites and has created a modular payload box to take the components into orbit.

But the technology clearly can be used for a wider array of purposes. One of the other benefits of this approach would be that the various components could be launched as what are known as hosted payloads. In other words, they hitch a ride with a larger satellite. Hosted payloads have long been advocated as one way to bring down the sky-high costs of launching satellites. But while commercial satellite firms hoped military programs would flock to them and bring down their own costs, the Pentagon has worried about a whole constellation of potential problems: control of their sensors should they be launched with a commercial satellite; interference from other sensors or transponders on the satellites; and quality control when the military payload is mated with the host.

Harris and Iridium came up last year with an intriguing approach, building a satellite with built-in space for hosted payloads. And the Air Force successfully deployed a sensor called CHIRP (Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload) that can serve as the beginning of an array of staring sensors designed to look for missile launches, other explosions and provide some change detection data. CHIRP, designed and built by Leidos (formerly Science Applications International Corporation), lasted three times as long as planned and was, according to the Air Force, a complete success. But resistance to the concept remains deeply embedded in Space and Missile Systems Center, the folks who build military satellites. Several civilian and defense space experts I spoke with yesterday at the industry conference Satellite 2014 said the culture change, underway for at least five or six years, remains a persistent problem.

The challenge was put best by someone who has wrestled with this issue for more than a decade at the British company, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. a leader in quickly building small satellites.

“Gen.  [William] Shelton [who heads Air Force Space Command] says he wants to do more of this, but what he has behind him is a large institutional body I call a supertanker, and it takes a long time to turn it around,” John Paffett, the CEO of Surrey’s American subsidiary, said yesterday during a panel on hosted payloads.

Combine the cultural barriers with the technological barriers and it is likely to be a long time before either DARPA’s vision of building and repairing satellites or launching many sensors into space as hosted payloads becomes a reality.


  • Brian

    They better think about getting the million tons of space junk cleaned up before putting more up there.

    • qcubed

      If only they could build scavenging satellites to repurpose the broken ones.

      • Pat Richards

        That’s kinda the idea…

    • diwee

      Send some liberals up there. All they know to talk about is trash. Thus always having their mouths open. They can clean it up in no time.

      • Mark Samuels

        Yo, how about switching parties, you make us good Republicans sound like idiots. Considering you most likely earn what 62% of Republicans earn which is under $75k, you’d be better served voting Democrat, and leaving the GOP votes to those of us with the proper income, and agenda, which is getting back to being the party of the people. Example, Nixon, he created the EPA, the Clean Air & Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, along with the Earned Income credit.

        • mike

          The proper income?

          • I’msmartatleast

            what is the “proper” income? I grew up poor. My parents were poor. Their parents were poor immigrants. When does that poverty stop being their fault and start being mine? Privileged white folks don’t know dick about suffering in this country. Open your eyes. Watch Vice.

        • MICHAEL

          what do any of your stupid comments have to do with the story? IM SO SICK OF PEOPLE THAT USE THESE FORUMS AND DONT STICK TO THE STORY. THEY JUST SPREAD THEIR POLITICAL CRAP…

      • Spankylee Wayne

        be easier to send you idiot redumblicans….the real problem in this country.

      • michael

        somewhat like you diwee? this is not a political story. try to stay “on topic” i know its a stretch for you, but try.

    • Bob Shuttleworth

      True. If anyone has watched the animated film “Wall-E” there is a scene that shows a spaceship crashing through a barrier of space junk while leaving earth. Or in the Current Film “Gravity” where a runaway dead satellite endangers the crew of another mission. These scenarios are not that far from reality. Perhaps a “space Garbage Truck” should be on NASAs drawing board as well.

  • MERLE1357

    With all the junk up there will the US be cited for littering?

  • JackieRay

    with the Russians haveing the only heavy lifters and obama is threatning them the next step would to annex the space station then they could control who goes to space

    • Wayne Thomas

      Yep, we’re screwed. Scrapping the shuttle program without another option was a really bad plan. That muslim outrach plan didn’t work out so well did it?

      • Chisna

        You must know the decision to shut down the shuttle program was made long before Obama was elected. So why blame Obama for it ?

        And why blame lack of funding for NASA when we’ve been digging ourselves out of a deep recession ? As far as the Muslim outreach program. Again…. You are making a mountain out of a molehill.


        • Wayne Thomas

          Well obviously there were many factors in play but intead of getting Nasa on track with a new program or a revamping of the shuttle program he chose to instead instructed them to towards this muslim outreach program. Didn’t you hear the campain promisses? The resession was supposed to be long over by now. Yes, I blame obama for a lot. Mostly because he’s responble for them and partly because he promissed to get us out of this. The “this” wasn’t something anyone could get us out of with the speed he suggested but all the morons fell for his bs.

          • Bob Shuttleworth

            Where is “Muslim” in any of what you are saying, even if it was the truth.

          • Chisna

            ( He ? ) Congress is in charge of funding. But if you feel you must blame the president. Then you will have to blame him for funding DARPA and this program as well. And as per your own comment. It was unrealistic of Obama and everyone else to expect that we could dig ourselves out of it with the speed that he suggested. Yet here you are whining about lack of funding for NASA. And totally disregarding the fact that congress hasn’t been giving NASA the funding it had before the recession. And ignoring the unprecedented obstruction he’s faced since first taking office. And no… He did not instruct NASA to make Muslim outreach a priority over research and development.

            Weak minded individual’s ( such as yourself ) simply fell for the RW propaganda which convinced you that was true.

          • Wayne Thomas

            Um…sorry but I heard the quote. He instructed nasa to “encourage and praise the role of muslims in science”. I don’t recall the exact wording of the quote but it basically that. Intead of working on space programs they were supposed to do that instead.

        • Spankylee Wayne

          must be on the wagon blaming otard for everything Bush screwed…..Vietnam….Otards fault of course.

        • Bob Shuttleworth

          Molehill? Try a ripple on a beach.

      • dennis warner


        • Wayne Thomas

          Good one! Here’s am evem better one….”very funny Scottie…now beam down my clothes”.

  • fm3359

    If NASA were actually working on SPACE instead of muslim outreach per obama’s orders this would be a reality.

    • Chisna

      Good little right wing troll.
      Or are you Rush Limbaughs parrot ?
      Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

      • Harris Cal

        Rush is an idiot that certainly doesn’t speak for the sober part of the Republican party.

        • Spankylee Wayne

          hang yourself redumblican….you are the problem.

          • edwbiker

            Get a job spanky. YOU are the problem.

      • dennis warner

        HA HA HA GOOD ONE.

    • Harris Cal

      I hope you aren’t a Republican. Remarks like this are not helpful.

      Obama’s tenure isn’t the problem in our culture or government. The apathy of the voters and those that don’t vote are the problem. The Democrats are doing a great job getting the lower income folks and those that rely on government support to vote; if we Republicans don’t wish to vote then we shouldn’t complain.

      • Francis Altieri

        you are ignorant you can thank the bush family for the repubicans delema and it will continue till the party is destroyed get it buddy or should i say lame-o?

        • Harris Cal

          I suppose I should be offended by your comment but I am not. You are obviously someone that is a solid Democrat. I generally vote for the best qualified candidate after doing my homework.
          Do you know the history of your party for the past 160 years? Might be a fun read for you.
          Little Bush had a disasterous last three years and set the Democrats up for the next win; people wanted change and they certainly got it.
          Both sides of the Congressional aisles are equally messed up and equally corrupt. Despite Obama’s promise to sweep the halls of Congress and get rid of the Lobbyist’s, they are stronger than ever. Just as many of your Democrats are lining their pockets as the Republican gang.
          What we need is an independent party to emerge (certainly not the Tea Party) that can bring economic and social management skills to the Executive branch as well as Congress. Lame-o……. that is a new name for me but you might be right; again, certainly not offended by your comment. Everyone is right, some people are just more right than others.

          • tonyc

            Finally, a voice of reason.

          • tonyc

            This country’s major fall started with Woodrow Wilson, with things like the
            Federal Reserve, Federal Income Tax along with it the IRS, and the League of
            Nations, which berthed The United Nations. Since then, the people have been
            getting raped by the government, regardless of party. Washington and many of our
            state and local governments are completely void of moral character. For this we
            have our uninformed, apathetic voters to thank.

          • Bob Shuttleworth

            Nice rhetoric, it’s too bad you have checked the facts.

            The Federal Reserve was born out of the Great Depression of the 1930, and it’s primary task is to keep the dollar stable.

            Income Tax is what pays for our government to run. Without it we would not have a strong military (However misused it has been of late) or any kind of infrastructure in this nation. Basically we’d be a third world nation for real, and would probably have lost in WWII.
            The League of Nations, Supported by Wilson, was not supported by our Congress and ultimately failed. It had little to do with the creation of the United Nations other than to give a road map of what not to do.
            Arew their corrupt politicians? Yes – Are their politicians who have sold out to PACs and Lobbyists? Again Yes. However are there Politicians who are actually attempting to some good for their constituents? Definitely. So in voting our bad politicians out, do your homework and don’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

        • disqus_RHEniFtct6

          Frank, you would be more credible if you could spell.

          • tonyc

            Don’t waste your time. It’s obvious, that Francis is a product of our public school system.

          • LEsteban223

            No child left behind, you say?

          • dennis warner


      • Mark Samuels

        Educate yourself, 62% of GOP voters are considered LOW INCOME, and receive Entitlements. NO Conservative State other than Utah pays more in taxes, then they receive in Entitlements. Evey Liberal State pays more in taxes, then they receive in Entitlements. That said, please switch parties so our once grand party can get back to basics, and helping the people, and the country.

        • dennis warner


      • Bob Shuttleworth

        No, the problem is the outright lies that the Tea Party Republicans are trying to pass off as truth. These mostly far right Christians seem to have forgotten the Commandment “Thou Shall not bear false witness.”

    • Al

      You aren’t serious about that statement, are you? Have
      you looked on the NASA website recently? Have you
      looked at the European Space Agency website recently?
      How about the research being done by the private sector
      like Boeing, Microsoft, General Dynamics, General Electric,
      etc. – some even involved with this particular program.
      What does the muslim outreach program have to do with
      any of this?

      • Spankylee Wayne

        take a joke douche or are you serious about this whine? I have a entire box of tissues for you and a book to study for your GED if so.

      • Donny Zunker

        The director of NASA told a reporter that his mission, is Muslim outreach… in other words, he and NASA are doing things to make Muslims feel better about themselves… even though not one Muslim as ever received a Nobel prize for anything… except for Arafat…
        Can you tell me what other mission NASA is pursuing right now? I honestly don’t know… I hear things about the moon and there is this desire to visit Mars… I oppose Mars… I don’t think we have enough tech in place to make this happen… also concerned about how much money it will cost…

    • tonyc

      SHHHH it’s a secret. They’re working on magical flying carpets.

    • Bob Shuttleworth

      What are you talking about? “Per Obama’s orders”? What orders,? without facts to back up your statement, you are like all those others who simply parrot the lies of those whose prejudice is preventing them from realizing that Our current President has already done a lot for this nation. (BTW – Obama is not a Muslim, despite GOP and Tea party lies try to say.)

  • Rich Barrett

    oh how amazing … something they should have been doing from the onset

  • ncast54

    Are any of the parts made in China?

  • John Connor

    It’s not NASA…It’s Cyberdyne…this is how it really begins…

    • Rooftop Voter


  • Harris Cal

    I think that folks would shout for more funds for DARPA is they truly knew how many of our current “i” toys and electronics are spin-offs of their great work. I have never heard anything within the military-industrial complex but good things about their innovations.

    • Cliven

      W/O DARPA there would be no internet to post this on!

      • Al Schrader

        Actually, it was a friend that started the Internet, I was there.
        He set up the equipment in his Florida room using handset modems.
        I saw it work.

        • Spankylee Wayne

          lol so he introduced the internet to the college that really invented it and was using it then? Brain sales on the corner, pick one up.

          • Al Schrader

            The colleges didn’t get it until years later. I built my first logic circuit in 1972 but I didn’t invent the Internet. I was there as it went down, though. Like me my friend worked for a NASA contractor. I was also there when the first cell phone was made – Oren Verble invented it – I was there, bub.
            He attached an antenna to a water tank tower and a telephone touch-tone pad to a security walk-talkie. He brought it to work at Douglas and cranked it up in the break room. I’m glad I didn’t bet him that he couldn’t make a call from the break table – I would have lost cause he took this thing out of his lunch box and called a guy right in front of us. When I went to his house he had wired these giant power transistors to bounce radio signals off of satelites flying over his house. I was impressed – it’s been 30 years. Oren worked on the Delta and other rocket pads even when the rocket was loaded with fuel ready to launch. He almost got killed a couple of times.

  • Al

    I suppose that everything today has political connections/ramifications
    to it. However, the fact is that space science (along with a lot of
    science) is a worldwide effort now. Experiments are being done by
    both the government and private industry – world wide. That concept
    has been very good for the public at large even with these political
    programs here and there. And, as always, what is science fiction
    today may become reality tomorrow. This is happening at a faster
    and faster rate. The program mentioned in this article is only one
    of the many space research programs going on in the world. Keep
    on experimenting! Fortunately, most scientists could care less about
    their colleagues political/religious beliefs. They are more concerned
    with what they can bring to the table.

  • mike

    As if there isn’t enough “Trash( I.S.S.) floating around ! and our wastefull government spending Dept. of Defense wants to turn space into a “Land fill”

  • smoky2u

    Funny They can afford
    a Satellite but want to cut Veterans and Military Retired benefits at The Pentagon. They say are broke but can afford a Satellite.

  • Al Schrader

    Guys I just did the Sierra Nevada conference call. Sierra is building the Dreamchaser.
    It doesn’t use tiles, instead it has a replaceable six-times use ablative heat shield – which wont flake off like dandruff, it’s a solid part. It also uses hydroxyl butadiene and nitrous oxide instead of dangerous hypergol fuels like the shuttle used. The hydroxyl engine can be started or stopped at will so the Dreamer can land anywhere. It sits atop the Atlas V rocket which is already built. Launch date is set for November 2016. It can carry up to six astronauts.
    I’ll answer questions if you like plus there is a Dreamchaser wiki page.

  • Spankylee Wayne

    well captain it looked like one of ours…..didnt mean to drag that foreign nuke satellite down I swear…..

  • dennis warner


  • R

    Who cares about political affiliation. The problem is both parties thinking that putting down the other is going to get this country back on track. Absolutely no need for political parties. Should be chosen on the one tht will do the best not “I’ll never vote for him/her cause their rep/dem”. Focus on the real problems

  • Baconoir

    why does every story descend into political name calling?

  • michael

    dont we need to actually have a space program first? i found the film boring, the girls voice irritating and it would have been nice if she spoke english.

  • michael


  • amtang2

    Based on the amount of nonsense comments here, totally unrelated to the science and technology in the DARPA article, this Republic is indeed in dire straits!
    Can anyone FOCUS and come together on solving specific problems and meeting the challenges of our times?!
    So, may I respectfully suggest dedicating less time to this unproductive and juvenile nonsense and much more time on considered thought, joining forces to work together and more effort toward problem solving and building our future rather than tearing each other down for debate points or worse – politics!
    To do otherwise, continuing on this unproductive and suicidal path, may very well condemn us and our children to a very bleak and dark future where this Republic no longer exists and we are reduced to faint dreams of a better world that could have been!

    Semper Fi,
    MSgt USMC Retired

    • jobie2

      You do realize that a flat tax hits the people who can afford it least, the hardest and again lowers taxes on the rich, who can most afford to pay.

    • Gary Church

      I believe they put some of these stories on other websites with a very low brow following and these get all the garbage comments. I just ignore them and don’t bother commenting usually- but I am a space buff and this one being so contaminated is disappointing.

  • Nicarol

    With NASA’s minuscule piece of the budget pie, it is incredible that we even have cell phones. If it weren’t for monotheistic religion attempting to keep us in the dark ages, we would probably be colonizing other planets by now. Then the blood-thirsty Christians and Muslims could have their own planets. Of course, they would be trying to blow each other up across the cosmos, because we all know each one has the one true god (er, depending on where you were born).

  • jobie2

    This was an article about future plans for our space program, yet, I didn’t see one comment that discussed the article.All of the comments were just the usual trolling about Dems vs. Repubs. So many scientific advances that make our everyday lives better have come from this program. Everything from computers to advances in better practices in medicine. We used to be a country that valued a well educated population, but, now it seems the more ignorant, the better. I’m glad that I came of age during the late ’60’s and 70’s when a public high school education meant that you had actually mastered a degree of proficiency in all subjects. If you were a resident of NYC, a free college education was FREE for everyone. A Regents scholarship actually paid for a free education at any state college. Most kids worked summer jobs to pay for books and room and board. We were the country who put the first man on the moon and reaped the benefits of all of the technological advances associated with that remarkable feat. The whole world stopped and looked on with wonder as our astronauts walked on and explored the moon. Fast forward to today. We are graduating illiterates from High School, a college education is for the rich or puts students and their families in debt for many years to come. We no longer value intellectual curiosity and have a segment of the population that just denies science. We are no longer the greatest country on Earth. As a matter of fact , in most areas we are 37th among first world countries. Very sad.

    • Wayne Thomas

      Yep, I agree, we have really been dumbed down.

      My initial comment that was political really didn’t belong. I was basically trying to point out that we could have already been there if some wouldn’t have decided that space exploration was a waste of money. I think it was Woopie Goldberg that said, when they were getting ready to launch something, “what do they expect to find up there they haven’t already seen?” Pretty sad when that’s the mentality of people.

    • wg

      Bravo jobie2 ! I am so sick of every story being turned into a political debate !

  • Donny Zunker

    Hmmm… first post I read made prefect sense, as there is alot junk problem in space… This junk can damage and destroy space stations and other satellites in orbit… just like the all the junk floating in the Pacific Ocean… BUT I digress… the 2nd comment, mentions ‘liberals’ and the entire conversation turns to Dems vs Reps, totally off topic…
    Many of these sites are self-monitoring… in other words, we are suppose to behave ourselves… and play nice with each other…
    And since I am off topic, I will say this… I like this idea… I think we should figure out ways to repair and upgrade all of the satellites that orbit our planet… and I think we should upgrade or reinvent the space shuttle so we can service these satellites… and /or modify the ISS to do this kind of work….
    OR better yet… assemble them in space… thus they could be huge compared to the compact satellites we launch now…

    • http://www.breakingdefense.com/ Colin Clark

      Donny, You ARE being monitored — all of you. But we allow political discussions as long as they do not involve personal attacks or have absolutely nothing to do with defense. When a story gets picked up and comments pour in faster than I can read them, it can take a while to catch up! Feel free to flag comments you think violate the personal attack, relevancy standard. I’ll see this flags more quickly.

      • Donny Zunker

        Okay… and now that I think about it, I do see some deleted posts… that said, given this topic and the interest I have for it, it would be nice to hear lots of ideas that the people at DARPA might use… granted they-DARPA, are rather smart, still there many things that they might not think of… or related ideas of interest… or improvements upon the current series of ideas you are writing about..
        As for the political discussion, the political bicking, the constant bashing, there are many other sites, many other articles posted, which deal exclusively for the political banter of the opposing view points… and I do visit and do my fair share of bashing…
        I guess my point is, it would be nice to have one site, one article, one series of posts, free from the political back and forth… a true exchange of ideas with the goal making something better, like satellites…
        But then I’d like to win enough money in the lottery so I can retire today instead of 4 years from now…
        Thanks for responding and Great Article… got me thinking…

  • rich flay

    Better keep this one in a high orbit, to make it more difficult for the Chinese to knock down.

    • AMTang2

      And what did the US Navy do with a RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) from a moving ship (USS Lake Erie) in the Pacific Ocean, a couple of thousand miles from the US at an altitude of 130 nautical miles (240 km) on 14 Feb 2008?

      The RIM-161 was modified with a software upgrade for the ASAT role and took out a malfunctioning US satellite.

      A much more significant accomplishment than the PRC launching of a ground-based ASAT in their 11 Jan 2007 test shoot.

      Semper Fi,
      MSgt USMC Retired

  • Jim

    Put up a satellite that can prevent the launch of ICBMs and you rule the world.

  • ycplum

    Wow. A lot of politicals trolls here.