Nearly 1,000 satellites are circling the globe right now and virtually all of them will be put out of commission within the next couple of decades, if not years.

Whether they sustain damage, run out of fuel or become technologically obsolete, orbiting satellites must be replaced regularly. But a new technology being developed in the heart of Southern California's aerospace industry could greatly expand the lifespan of satellites and revolutionize the industry.

At Alliance Spacesystems in Pasadena, researchers recently completed work on the first of two prototype robotic arms that could allow spacecraft to grab hold of military or commercial satellites that were never designed to be captured. This feat would allow repair, refueling and a host of other possibilities, eventually leading to hundreds of billions of dollars in savings to the government and industry.

"One of the biggest costs of satellites is the launch cost, and if you can avoid that and simply replace sensors or electronics that would be revolutionary," said Marco Caceres, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.

Alliance's technological breakthrough builds on its success in carving out a niche for itself in the nascent robotic arm market. It's the first American company to supply the structures to NASA space missions, building several lightweight arms for the agency's Mars rovers, including one for the Mars Phoenix lander that launched Aug. 4.

In fact, the 10-year-old company's technical prowess has attracted so much attention that one of its much larger rivals, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., a Canadian satellite, robotics and radar company, plans to acquire it. Financial details of the transaction, announced last week, were not disclosed.

MacDonald Dettwiler, or MDA, which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange and reported $1 billion in 2006 revenue, has supplied arms to NASA's space shuttle and the International Space Station. The company also has data processing and electronics divisions. It hopes to expand its U.S. presence with this acquisition and take advantage of Alliance's growing reputation.

"We hope Alliance will take on a significant role in representing MDA's technology offering in the United States," said Paul Cooper, vice president of strategic development for MDA. "This will enable Alliance to offer broader and deeper capabilities to its existing customers as well as new ones."

Alliance affiliated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA research and development center in Pasadena operated by Caltech will retain its name, management and U.S. operations.

Rene Fradet, chief executive and co-founder of Alliance, said he expects to benefit from the increased technological and financial resources that MDA can provide. Alliance had sales of $26 million by the end of the last fiscal year.

"The idea behind this is for us to be the lead in the U.S. for MDA's space business," he said. "It really strengthens our capability in this area."

The deal still requires MDA shareholder approval, but is expected to close by the end of the month.

Robotics, composites

Alliance already has nearly doubled in size in the past year, gaining momentum after a merger with materials manufacturer Vision Composites in June 2006. Alliance sought to strengthen its manufacturing capabilities through the merger.

Alliance's 110 employees are split about evenly between its two facilities: a research and development laboratory in Pasadena and the Signal Hill composite materials manufacturing facility acquired in the merger.

Alliance was founded in 1997 by Fradet, then an engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and two of his colleagues. Armed with an expertise in technological design, the company began constructing robotic arms in late 1998. The company has since built four arms for NASA vehicles, including the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Still, as a result of the merger, most of Alliance's revenue comes from manufacturing composite materials that are used by aerospace customers like Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. to build spacecraft parts and other items. But its latest prototype arm could mean a big boost for its original business.

The company won $14 million for the project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency the Department of Defense's primary technology development agency, famous for such advances as the Internet as well as the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Developed over just 13 months, the arm is more articulated and about 20 times heavier than the company's Mars Rover devices. It is designed to be mounted on a specially designed satellite and is capable of grasping existing orbiting satellites by bolt holes or other small parts.

Fradet said the biggest challenge with the arm was the compressed timeline during which the company had to design and build it. A structure of this complexity, he said, would normally take between 24 months and 30 months. "We didn't have time to think twice; we had to make decisions and move forward," he said.

The most immediate benefactors of this technology will be the military, given it has supplied the development funding. A typical, top secret military satellite can cost upwards of $1 billion to develop and the launch might run another $400 million. In addition, the military replaces its satellites as often as technology advances.

"The military is always looking to have the latest imaging technology and it's hard to always have the latest technology when it keeps changing so quickly," said Caceres, the aerospace analyst. "If you could simply install that technology in space rather than going through the launch process and spending several hundred million dollars, that's a huge advantage."

Alliance is set to begin work on the second of two prototype arms commissioned by DARPA under its Front-end Robotics Enabling Near-Term Demonstration program also known as "Frend."

The Frend program builds on a successful effort this year by DARPA that had two test satellites rendezvous in space, including one outfitted with an arm that grabbed the other. (That arm was not designed by Alliance.) The Frend program takes that idea a step further to allow docking with all types of satellites, said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker.

"Frend offers the potential for salvaging spacecraft, repair, rescue, reposition and debris removal all of these things will extend the life of a satellite," she said. "That gives you a lot of options in how you design your satellite."

The government expects to receive the second arm by summer and will conduct a full ground demonstration shortly thereafter. Walker said the government is still looking for a launch partner that will allow them to conduct a demonstration in orbit.

Further in the future is the potential to commercialize the arm. Fradet expects that the device will put the company at the forefront of a new business of repairing and servicing commercial satellites.

"There are some TV and communications satellites that could potentially benefit from being serviced, but they have no design features to allow that," he said. "It's expected that the commercial satellites will have to be revamped and replenished this could lead to the extension of life of the satellites."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.