A startup company has announced that it hopes to build an orbiting gas station to service other satellites.
In an interview with SpaceNews, the Silicon Valley company Orbit Fab said they had raised funding for an inaugural launch as early as next year. The company eventually wants to place tanks containing different types of fuel in orbit, which other satellites could use to refuel.
“We differentiate ourselves from the satellite servicing operators in that we’re looking to put up just dumb tanks full of propellant, to provide that propellant where it’s needed, and we’re looking to partner with the satellite servicing operators to help improve their business models,” CEO Daniel Faber said in the interview.
On their website, the company has a brief roadmap outlined, which begins with launching a single module depot at an unspecified date. Then, they plan to place three separate depots in three different orbits, before ultimately having a station that can manufacture its own fuel.
The idea appears to be that Orbit Fab will essentially operate giant fuel tanks in space. Then, upcoming satellite servicing vehicles – which may enter service in the coming years – would travel to the depots, collect fuel, and take that to other satellites.
Keeping satellites fueled in orbit is an ongoing issue, with a number of solutions proposed over the years. Some have looked into using other servicing satellites to refuel in orbit, while there have been several other orbiting gas stations proposed before.
In July this year, Virginia startup Cislunar Space Development Company also announced its intention to build gas stations in orbit, separating oxygen and hydrogen from water in orbit to be used as fuel. They noted this could make trips to the Moon more feasible.
Other companies are working on satellite servicing vehicles, including Orbital ATK, who hope to launch their new Mission Robotic Vehicle in 2021. Another company, Maxar Technologies in the UK, is looking at similar technology.
Orbit Fab’s mission next year will be done in partnership with NASA, although they haven’t yet released details on what the mission will entail. Other details, such as when exactly the launch will be or what rocket they will travel on, have also not been released.
It does look like satellite servicing and refueling may become quite a big deal in the coming years, not only for satellites in Earth orbit but for missions in deep space such as asteroid mining. Perhaps orbital fuel depots like that proposed by Orbit Fab will become commonplace.