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Adam Minter

Satellite-Saving Robots Can Turn Killer, Too

Orbiting machines used to repair other spacecraft can just as easily be used to destroy them and will require new international rules to keep the peace.

Friend or foe?

Friend or foe?

Photographer: NASA/Getty Images 

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.