From enabling communications and Earth observations to providing weather forecasts and GPS navigation, orbital satellites perform a variety of important functions. However, once a satellite runs out of fuel, it’s useless.
Some satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Unfortunately, if the inactive ones aren’t destroyed, they can become dangerous pieces of space junk.
“In the past decade, almost 200 satellites worth about 100 billion dollars had to be destroyed because they ran out of fuel,” said Orbit Fab CEO and co-founder Daniel Faber at a TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield 2019 presentation.
To combat this costly issue, Orbit Fab is aiming to build “gas stations” in space to refuel satellites in orbit.
A Growing Number of Satellites
Recent data shows that about 2,062 satellites are currently orbiting the Earth and it appears that the demand for microsatellites will only keep growing. Each of these orbital devices has a distinct purpose and designated location in space.
However, sometimes, a launch glitch causes a rocket to transport a satellite to the wrong place. In this case, if they don’t have enough fuel to travel to the correct location, the satellite becomes useless.
Faber compares a satellite to a car in order to explain the problem. He says that it’s like throwing away an entire car after it uses up its first tank of gas.
In its corporate vision, Orbit Fab states, “We offer a ubiquitous supply of satellite propellant in Earth Orbit, expanding the operational potential of new and existing space assets and enabling unprecedented business model flexibility for satellite owners. The future for satellites is no longer restricted to the fuel they are launched with. We provide the fuel that satellites need, where and when they need it, to achieve things never before thought possible.”
To help bring the company’s vision to life, Orbit Fab developed RAFTI, which stands for a “Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface.” The device is designed to provide filling and drainage services on the ground, as well as in-orbit refueling. It also allows “Reliable propellant transfers in the harshest space environments.”
Faber demonstrated the refueling technology on stage for the first time at Disrupt. Given the complexity of satellite designs and other aerospace operations, the orbital refueling process seems rather simple.
The startup’s visionary CEO told the Disrupt panel how the system works.
“It comes into proximity of satellite and its arms close around the fueling port. Then we can transfer high-pressure propellant,” Faber said. “When the transfer is done, the spacecraft is released and goes off to an orbit where it can make more money for its owners.”
Essentially, satellite builders will integrate Orbit Fab’s standard nozzles into their designs. Then, a robotic refueler will find the nozzle, latch onto it safely and securely, and provide a transfer route for a propellant refill from any point in space.
A History-Making Happy Accident
Orbit Fab has experienced rapid early adoptions of this technology. The startup’s success is partly due to the fact that it has already demonstrated its viability in space at the International Space Station.
“Basically in four-and-a-half months, we got flight-qualified and human-rated from NASA our two tanker testbeds that we flew to the International Space Station in December 2018, and March of 2019,” Jeremy Schiel, the firm’s other co-founder, said.
The space station crew members transferred fluids between the two tankers to test the system’s pumps and valves. In this scenario, they used water. After the test, the team hooked the system up to the ISS. As a result, Orbit Fab became the first private company to resupply water to the space station.
Faber informed the Disrupt 2019 panel that Orbit Fab has already sold its technology to two customers. The company will be shipping 10 fueling ports in the next two weeks to fill those orders.
He also shared that the startup has secured contracts with the U.S. Air Force and Japanese conglomerate IHI, a partnership with Lockheed Martin, and many other deals.
Orbit Fab was notably one of the Top Five finalists at Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield this year. The private aerospace firm also raised $3 million in seed funds at the 2019 TechCrunch event to further its orbital refueling goals.