Satellite-Saving Robots Can Turn Killer, Too

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The most sophisticated satellites can cost more than $1 billion to build and launch. Yet all that money and technology hasn’t been able to buy something every car owner takes for granted: on-demand repairs and tune-ups. Now, thanks to years of development by governments and private companies, outer space satellite servicing is becoming a reality — and a business.

Just this month, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, announced that a robotic repair arm it developed will be ready for launch in 2025. By then, it will be just the latest advance in satellite tune-ups, ready to help clear a path through the growing accumulation of space junk orbiting the earth.

That’s good news for satellite owners and the businesses and consumers who rely upon them. But these technologies are also a cause for concern. Militaries, in particular, worry that orbiting machines designed to repair satellites may also be used to attack them. Those concerns, in turn, can lead to mistrust and potentially grave miscalculations and conflict. Limiting those misunderstandings will be crucial to further growing the booming commercial space industry.

Astronauts were the original in-orbit solution for fixing or upgrading government and scientific equipment like Skylab and the Hubble Space Telescope. But such costly and dangerous missions would never have been launched for a commercial venture.

Over the last 15 years, the incentives have been shifting. First, the growth of commercial space activities has spurred thinking about whether and how to wring more life out of expensive satellites that were never designed to be refueled or repaired.

Second, the growing fleet of working satellites in Earth orbit — the number doubled to around 6,000 in the last two years — is sharing space with 26,000…

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