Orbit Fab, an American company, is making strides towards establishing a “gas station in space,” a system for on-orbit refueling that encompasses fuel ports, refueling shuttles, and orbital gas stations (refueling tankers). The company’s vision aims to address the growing issue of space debris, particularly defunct satellites and space vehicles.
The on-orbit refueling system, although not inexpensive, is gaining attention and interest. With a starting cost of $20 million, the system has already undergone tests, and Orbit Fab has launched a fuel depot demonstrator. The company is planning its next launch in 2024 for a mission with the Air Force Research Lab.
CEO Daniel Faber stated, “We are delivering fuel in geostationary orbit for a mission that is being undertaken by the Air Force Research Lab. 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 has secured its first private customer, Astroscale, a Japanese satellite servicing company, which plans to use the refueling system for its satellite called LEXI. The launch for this mission is scheduled for 2026.
The concept of on-orbit servicing, such as refueling, has gained importance in the context of space sustainability. The increasing amount of space debris, including defunct satellites, poses risks to ongoing and future space missions. The initiative by Orbit Fab is seen as a significant step toward creating a safer and more sustainable space environment.
Simone D’Amico, an associate professor of astronautics at Stanford University, highlighted the importance of on-orbit servicing for the safe and sustainable development of space. He compared the need for on-orbit servicing infrastructure to the importance of gas stations and auto repair shops in a ground mobility infrastructure.
Orbit Fab’s approach is considered visionary, addressing a critical need in the space industry. However, it comes with short-term risks as satellites need to be designed with reusability and refueling in mind. Overall, the development of space infrastructure, including refueling capabilities, is crucial for the responsible expansion of space activities.