Since the dawn of the space age (the launch of Sputnik I in 1957), humans have put more than 15,000 satellites into orbit. Just over half are still operating; the rest, after running out of fuel and ending their useful life, have burned up in the atmosphere or are still orbiting the planet as useless chunks of metal.
As such, they pose a threat to the International Space Station and other satellites, and the European Space Agency estimates that more than 640 “ruptures, explosions, collisions or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation” have occurred to date.
This has created an aura of space junk around the planet, made up of 36,500 objects larger than 10 centimeters (3.94 inches) and a whopping 130 million fragments up to 1 centimeter (0.39 inches). Cleaning up this debris is expensive and complicated; There are several plans to do so, but there are no tangible results yet.
One way to begin to address the problem would be to stop producing more trash by refueling satellites rather than dismantling them once they run out of power.
“At this time you cannot refuel a satellite in orbit,” says Daniel Faber, CEO of Orbit Fab. But his Colorado-based company wants to change that.
“When satellites run out of fuel, it is not possible to keep them in the correct place in orbit and they become dangerous debris, floating at very high speeds and at risk of colliding,” explains Faber. “But also, the lack of fuel creates a whole paradigm in which people design their spacecraft missions by moving as little as possible.
“That means we can’t have cranes in orbit to get rid of any remaining debris. We can’t do repairs or maintenance, we can’t update anything. We can’t inspect anything if it breaks. There are so many things we can’t do and we operate on a very limited basis. That is the solution we are trying to offer.”
The concept of refueling and maintaining satellites in orbit was pioneered by NASA in 2007, when, in collaboration with DARPA (the research arm of the US Department of Defense) and Boeing, it launched Orbital Express, a mission which involved two specially built satellites that successfully docked and exchanged fuel. NASA subsequently worked on the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), which further explored the challenges of refueling existing satellites.
Now the agency is working on OSAM-1, which was scheduled to launch in 2026 and will attempt to capture and refuel Landsat-7, an Earth observation satellite that has run out of gas.
“This is a mission to refuel a satellite that was not prepared to be refueled,” says Faber. “So they effectively have to operate the satellite, cutting it off to access the fuel lines. “This allows for impressive satellite repair capability, but it comes at a price.” NASA said OSAM-1 will cost about $2 billion in total.
Orbit Fab has no plans to address the existing satellite fleet. Instead, it wants to focus on those that have not yet been launched and equip them with a standardized port (called RAFTI, for Rapid Connectable Fluid Transfer Interface) that would dramatically simplify the refueling operation, while keeping the price down.
“What we’re looking to do is create a low-cost architecture,” Faber says. “There is still no commercially available fuel port to refuel a satellite in orbit. For all the grand aspirations we have about a thriving space economy, in reality what we are working on is the gas cap – we are a gas cap company.”
Orbit Fab, which advertises itself with the slogan “gas stations in space,” is working on a system that includes the fuel port, refueling shuttles (which would deliver fuel to a satellite in need) and tanker trucks. refueling stations, or orbital service stations. from where the ferries could pick up the fuel. It has announced a $20 million price tag for in-orbit delivery of hydrazine, the most common satellite propellant.
In 2018, the company launched two test stands to the International Space Station to test interfaces, pumps and pipelines. In 2021, it launched the Tanker-001 Tenzing, a fuel tank demonstrator that served as the basis for the current hardware design.
The next launch is planned for 2024. “We are delivering fuel to geostationary orbit for a mission being carried out by the Air Force Research Laboratory,” Faber says. “At the moment, they’re treating it as a demonstration, but it’s getting a lot of interest from across the U.S. government, from people realizing the value of refueling.”
Orbit Fab’s first private customer will be Astroscale, a Japanese satellite services company that has developed the first satellite designed for refueling. Called LEXI, it will mount RAFTI ports and is currently scheduled for launch in 2026.
According to Simone D’Amico, an associate professor of astronautics at Stanford University, who is not affiliated with Orbit Fab, in-orbit service is one of the keys to ensuring the safe and sustainable development of space. “Can you imagine a land mobility infrastructure, roads and cities, without gas stations or car repair shops? Can you imagine single-use cars or airplanes?” he asks. “The development of space infrastructure and the proliferation of space assets is reaching a critical volume that is no longer sustainable without a paradigm shift.”
D’Amico adds that there are many reasons why this hasn’t happened before, including, until recently, a perceived lack of need given the limited number of spacecraft, and the fact that in-orbit maintenance technology is only now being developed. has become economically viable due to progress in the miniaturization of satellites.
He considers Orbit Fab to be original, especially from a marketing point of view. “It is probably the only company in the world that has positioned itself to deploy ‘service stations’ in orbit,” he says. “I think Orbit Fab’s approach is really visionary and can deliver results in the medium and long term. However, it has a high risk in the short term, as satellites must be designed with reuse and refueling in mind.”
Initially, Orbit Fab plans to find its market as a fuel supplier to companies, such as Astroscale, that plan to inspect, repair and upgrade satellites in orbit or perform debris collection. According to Faber, success in this sector could convince large telecommunications corporations, which operate a large number of satellites, to change their business model and adopt refueling and maintenance.
He adds that once the pattern of sending and delivering fuel to orbit is established, the next step is to start producing fuel there. “In 10 or 15 years, we would like to build refineries in orbit,” he says, “processing the material that is launched from Earth into a variety of chemicals that people want to buy: air and water for commercial space stations, Minerals as matter premium for 3D printers to grow plants. “We want to be the supplier of industrial chemicals for the emerging commercial space industry.”