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DARPA’s Project Phoenix to Put Tiny ‘Satlets’ in Orbit in 2015

DARPA and its partners are planning the launch of a new generation of experimental satellites, the first step in a plan to reinvent the way America puts things in orbit. These "satlets," created by space tech company NovaWurks in collaboration with the Defense Department's research wing, are tiny, independent modules that weigh just 15 pounds — yet include all necessary satellite functions. These aren't simply stand-alone nanosatellites like CubeSats. They're meant to join together to form larger units, much as cells form organs and bodies. Eventually, DARPA hopes the satlets could seek out unused or disabled satellites in orbit and cannibalize them for parts, such as antennas or solar panels. Fittingly, this project is known as the Phoenix Program.

DARPA artist's impression of how Phoenix Project "satlets" could combine or augment existing satellites. DARPA

For now, though, the satlets must prove their worth in space alone, and SpaceFlight Inc. has agreed to launch NovaWurks's eXCITe spacecraft in late 2015 aboard its own SHERPA platform, which specializes in carrying and launching small craft in orbit. It's a long way from there to repurposing old space junk, but success could mean new life for dozens of satellites whose useful parts would otherwise burn up on re-entry.

Orion spacecraft back on dry land in San Diego 0:23

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—Devin Coldewey