Like email and the Internet, GPS is one of those seemingly magic technologies—we know somewhere deep down that the directions on our smartphone have to come from somewhere, but it’s easier not to think about the satellites hovering in space (and the data centers, in the case of the former two examples) that do the job. But satellites do exist, and eventually turn hay into expensive space junk. And unlike with many earthbound electronics, it’s insanely difficult to recycle their parts. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the government agency known for its futuristic technologies, has an idea.
Earlier this year, DARPA introduced its Phoenix program—an initiative that aims to "develop and demonstrate technologies to cooperatively harvest and re-use valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites in [geosynchronous orbit] and demonstrate the ability to create new space systems at greatly reduced cost." As you can see in the video above, those technologies consist of robots that harvest antennas from dead satellites and stick them on small "satlets"—mini communications satellites that travel into orbit along with commercial payloads.
As Wired points out, this is not a cheap solution. The initiative, which has a $180 million price tag, consists of lots of moving parts, like a slightly creepy robotic arm and a piece of technology that can bond materials in orbit without mechanical parts.
The Phoenix program’s technology will be tested in 2015.