Repurposing Spacecraft not a Novel Idea, but a Cost-Effective One

On August 15th, NASA officially issued a call for help, in the form of scientific white papers, in hopes of repurposing the crippled Kepler spacecraft. The telescope, which had led the charge in finding exoplanets, planets orbiting distant stars, has been unable to function due to issues with two of its four reaction wheels. These wheels, which, NASA explains, are used to point to distant galaxies, are vital to Kepler’s scientific mission, studying distant stars for the changes in light intensity that would signal a planet passing between Kepler and the star. Without the ability to point correctly, the spacecraft’s main mission is compromised. Rather than letting it drift in space, NASA is trying to repurpose the satellite to save money, a strategy that the space agency has used in years past.

NASA had success with repurposing two of the THEMIS spacecraft in 2010, according to an old press release. Originally intended to study the magnetosphere, the little understood magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, two THEMIS spacecraft were diverted toward the moon after finishing their original mission. Once in lunar orbit, the spacecraft began a new mission, ARTEMIS, studying the effect of solar wind on the moon’s surface. By simply sending the fueled spacecraft to another location, NASA scientists were able to get valuable new data, without spending much extra money.

“Using two repurposed satellites for the ARTEMIS mission highlights NASA’s efficient use of the nation’s space assets,” said Dick Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. With its budget shrinking, NASA is doing all that it can to avoid the high cost of building and launching spacecraft.

NASA is not alone in trying to save money through repurposing satellites. John Keller reported in late January that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA, is also looking to repurpose spacecarft, by recycling components from non-operational satellites. Defunct spacecraft often have still useful antennae and sensors. Building and launching these components is costly, in terms of both manufacturing and fuel. By recycling parts already up there, DARPA can lower the cost of a new satellite.

Using new ideas and clever innovations to repurpose or recycle spacecraft is both cost effective and a strong move toward sustainability. The junkyard of decommissioned satellites can instead become a useful tool shop for those with innovative ideas.