Self-Assembling Satlets

As individual pieces, Lego bricks are packed with a great deal of potential and promise. Each brick has all the tools and components necessary to build bigger and better things, with imagination being the only limiting factor. That’s exactly the concept at play with “Satlets,” which aim to change the way we launch objects into space.

Satlets are tiny (15-pound) modules, designed by space tech company NovaWurks, that have all the components of a satellite, but are designed to join together to form large units. As they orbit, Satlets would seek out unused or disabled satellites, and cannibalize them for parts, thus creating a new and functioning larger satellite, all from space. If successful, this could prove to be the solution for several posing issues faced by space programs worldwide, including:


  1. What to do with the growing amount of space debris orbiting the Earth
  2. How to push away from launching massively sized space crafts toward a model far more versatile and affordable


And while the potential of a satellite construction and recycling program is exciting many, Satlets serve a greater and more immediate purpose as well. Just as Lego bricks have the potential of becoming anything from a car to a space station, the Satlet building blocks will also potentially have that same versatility.


Before it walks, it has to crawl


As with any innovation, extensive tests and trials must be conducted before Satlets are deemed a success. In the case of the Satlets, this comes in the form of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA’s) Phoenix program, which will launch its first Satlet (named eXCITe) in the third quarter of 2015. eXCITe is just one component of DARPA’s Phoenix program, which aims to prove the ability to repurpose usable components from space, including antennas and panels.


What’s wrong with satellites as they are now?


The innovation of Satlets – to replace the way satellites are assembled and launched today – raises the question of what, exactly, is wrong with satellites in their current form? The issue comes down to two specific areas: cost and size.

Current-day satellites are extremely expensive, require a long developmental lead-time, and must be designed to handle their orbit without any potential for upgrades or repairs. All this determines the size, cost, and complexity of the satellite, thus making them far from versatile once they are launched. Satlets, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They’re small, less expensive, and aren’t confined to certain functionalities. Much like how stem cells can adapt to virtually any function in the human body, Satlets will be able to take on any responsibility it’s presented with. Meanwhile, these Satlets are designed to upgrade and repair themselves, thus giving space systems the type of accessibility and flexibly that land-based designers often take for granted.

If all goes well, the success of Satlets could be the foundation for creating a truly scalable, orbital space systems at a fraction of current costs.

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