Space

Could an on-orbit gas station extend the lives of military satellites?

WASHINGTON — An on-orbit gas station could be the latest addition to the growing portfolio of satellite life-extension services, with the first so-called gas station in space anticipated to be launched by Orbit Fab in June 2021.

“In-orbit servicing companies are rapidly proliferating with a five-fold increase since we founded Orbit Fab in 2018,” CEO Daniel Faber said in a statement. “Our gas stations in space are an essential resource to fuel this industry and support the infrastructure in space that enables projected commerce, exploration and national security.”

Launched in 2018, the San Francisco, California-based Orbit Fab announced Nov. 18 it signed a deal with Spaceflight Inc. to launch its first operational fuel depot into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. Once on orbit, Tanker 001 Tenzing will be a potential source of fuel for compatible space vehicles with depleted fuel stores.

Space vehicles can connect with the fuel depot through the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface, a technology for transferring liquids that has been adopted by a number of companies. Orbit Fab first tested its RAFTI on orbit in a private water transfer to the International Space Station.

The space-based fuel depot has already drawn interest from the U.S. military, which is interested in finding new ways to extend its satellites’ lives with supplemental fuel. Earlier this year the company was awarded a $3 million contract by the U.S. Air Force to fully flight-qualify the RAFTI valve.

If successful, the fuel depot will add to the growing portfolio of satellite life-extension services offered to the government by industry.

Most notably, SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary, is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a mission-extension vehicle with a robotic arm that can service on-orbit satellites. The company is already using its first mission extension vehicle to extend the life of a commercial communications satellite, supplementing the customer satellite’s depleted fuel reserves with its own. Astroscale — known primarily as an orbital debris removal company — is developing a similar life-extension service.

In the future, Orbit Fab sees its fuel depot working as a refueling station for similar mission-extension vehicles.

“Orbit Fab’s RAFTI supports the Air Force and Space Force need for space combat logistics capabilities (On-Orbit Servicing), which enables space domain awareness,” said Orbit Fab’s chief development officer, Jeremy Schiel. “Refueling is a requirement in the emerging Space Force architecture and for good reason. You don’t want to run out of fuel in the middle of a confrontation.”

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