In an era when companies are seriously talking about mining asteroids, there is an enormous untapped resource in space which is as close as low Earth orbit (LEO), and which is otherwise classified as ‘space junk’: Dead satellites.
Dead satellites are currently a nuisance to navigation at worst, and candidates for ‘controlled re-entry’ for burning in the atmosphere at best.
Lifting mass from the earth’s surface to LEO is the single hardest, most difficult, dangerous and expensive part of a space mission. Anecdotally, launch cost to LEO is said to be about US$10,000/pound. Based on some admittedly cursory research I just conducted, launching to LEO still costs in the neighborhood of US$1,000-5000 per pound*. At that rate, a 1-ton satellite costs anywhere from US$2,000,000 to US$10,000,000 per pound to launch into LEO space. Median reasonable guesstimates are about US$5,000/pound. SpaceX has estimated that they will be able to launch for as little as about $690/pound.
So even SpaceX’s lowest current rate would cost you as little as US$34,500 to check your 50 pound luggage to the International Space Station (ISS). (All the above numbers are necessarily very rough. I’m no expert in this area, but they seem consistent across diverse web sites.)
But what if you could already be working in LEO and obtain propellant tanks, solar panels, transceivers, antennae, space-hardened computer components and more, all for the cost of salvage?
That’s the goal of DARPA’s Phoenix Program. The animated video below is not narrated, but is still interesting and thought-provoking.
*=I used these two links for the purposes of estimating launch costs for this post: http://exrocketman.blogspot.com/2012/09/revised-launch-cost-update.html and http://exrocketman.blogspot.com/2012/05/revised-expanded-launch-cost-data.html
This article was inspired by the story I found here.
Other interesting lnks:
Pentagon starts Phoenix trial to harvest defunct satellites, MacGyver new ones from orbit