There's a bunch of junk orbiting the Earth right now, a bunch of junk that we put there. But not all of the old satellites that are zooming around the planet are totally useless; plenty still have good stuff in them that could be reused and DARPA wants to start mining them.
The project is still in its infancy, but DARPA's Phoneix Program is now showing off its first steps, including all kinds of prototype arms and grippers that can eventually be used to go around to old, non-functional satellites and take them for all they're worth. With permission from the satellite's owner, of course. This isn't literal space piracy, not yet anyway.
DARPA Project Manager David Barnhart put it this way:
Our ultimate goal for the Phoenix program is to increase the return on investment of high value space assets by reusing components from nonfunctioning satellites that have already been placed in space through permission from their owners and techniques and technologies that allow for responsible, transparent, and safe processes and behaviors. We have a long way to go, but we are laying the foundation for improving how we build space systems, with the goal of changing the economic model for space operations.
Early next month, DARPA will be soliciting proposals for pieces of the puzzle that are still missing—like how to integrate the existing prototypes into a whole that can actually do something—so this zero-gravity recycling future is still years off at best. But sooner or later, we'll be tearing those junkers apart and getting to the goodies inside. [DARPA]