Orbit Fab Wants to Create ‘Gas Stations’ in Space for Satellites


Of the 15,000 satellites humans have sent into space, “just over half are still functioning,” reports CNN. “The rest, after running out of fuel and ending their serviceable life, have either burned up in the atmosphere or are still orbiting the planet as useless hunks of metal” — scattering “an aura of space junk around the planet.” “One way to start tackling the problem would be to stop producing more junk — by refueling satellites rather than decommissioning them once they run out of power.”
“Right now you can’t refuel a satellite on orbit,” says Daniel Faber, CEO of Orbit Fab. But his Colorado-based company wants to change that… “The lack of fuel creates a whole paradigm where people design their spacecraft missions around moving as little as possible. That means that we can’t have tow trucks in orbit to get rid of any debris that happens to be left. We can’t have repairs and maintenance, we can’t upgrade anything. We can’t inspect anything if it breaks. There are so many things we can’t do and we operate in a very constrained way. That’s the solution we’re trying to deliver….” Orbit Fab has no plans to address the existing fleet of satellites. Instead, it wants to focus on those that have yet to launch, and equip them with a standardized port — called RAFTI, for Rapid Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface — which would dramatically simplify the refueling operation, keeping the price tag down. “What we’re looking at doing is creating a low-cost architecture,” says Faber. “There’s no commercially available fuel port for refueling a satellite in orbit yet. For all the big aspirations we have about a bustling space economy, really, what we’re working on is the gas cap — we are a gas cap company.” Orbit Fab, which advertises itself with the tagline “gas stations in space,” is working on a system that includes the fuel port, refueling shuttles — which would deliver the fuel to a satellite in need — and refueling tankers, or orbital gas stations, which the shuttles could pick up the fuel from. It has advertised a price of $20 million for on-orbit delivery of hydrazine, the most common satellite propellant. In 2018, the company launched two testbeds to the International Space Station to test the interfaces, the pumps and the plumbing. In 2021 it launched Tanker-001 Tenzing, a fuel depot demonstrator that informed the design of the current hardware. The next launch is now scheduled for 2024. “We are delivering fuel in geostationary orbit for a mission that is being undertaken by the Air Force Research Lab,” says Faber. “At the moment, they’re treating it as a demonstration, but it’s getting a lot of interest from across the US government, from people that realize the value of refueling.” Orbit Fab’s first private customer will be Astroscale, a Japanese satellite servicing company that has developed the first satellite designed for refueling. Called LEXI, it will mount RAFTI ports and is currently scheduled to launch in 2026. According to Simone D’Amico, an associate professor of astronautics at Stanford University, who’s not affiliated with Orbit Fab, on-orbit servicing is one of the keys to ensuring a safe and sustainable development of space… “The development of space infrastructure and the proliferation of space assets is reaching a critical volume that is not sustainable anymore without a change of paradigm.” “In 10 or 15 years, we’d like to be building refineries in orbit,” CEO Faber tells CNN, “processing material that is launched from the ground into a range of chemicals that people want to buy: air and water for commercial space stations, 3D printer feedstock minerals to grow plants. We want to be the industrial chemical supplier to the emerging commercial space industry.”

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December 17, 2023 at 05:40AM