From theory to reality: Refueling satellites in space

Over the last four years, the Orbit Fab team has been working on creating gas stations in space, and now most of the technology needed to do this has been developed.
Vijaya Cherian, Editorial Director, SatellitePro ME.

Space is no longer an inaccessible frontier, and it’s fascinating to see how some ideas that were merely on paper a few years ago are now slowly unfolding before our eyes. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with serial entrepreneur and CEO of Orbit Fab Daniel Faber, whose mega plan to build gas stations in space is now slowly becoming a reality.

Faber’s team has been working over the last four years towards this, and now most of the underlying technology needed to have fuel depots in space has been developed. In fact, the first operational propellant depot has been launched in LEO and two years from now, Orbit Fab will have shuttles to take the fuel from the depot to the operational satellites.

Besides creating a brand new opportunity for the first time to refuel satellites, which were previously rendered useless if they ran out of gas, Faber’s dream is to help “create the bustling economy that will ultimately support permanent jobs in space”.

Faber has been clever. His fuel depots have a payload that produces no data, consumes no power and requires no antennas. By keeping the depots simple, he has also ensured they are cost-effective. Likewise, the fuel shuttles have rendezvous docking elements that allow them to dock to another satellite. Here again, Orbit Fab relies on the satellite having a fuelling port, akin to a gas cap, which incorporates grappling elements so it can be used for docking.

Faber sums up the whole package as “a tank and a pump to deliver the fuel” and says most of the innovation is not as much in the technology as in the business models.

Another interesting conversation SatellitePro had was with Astroscale, which is specifically working towards “safely removing defunct objects from space and pioneering new ways to service, upgrade and transport spacecraft”.

Such innovations hugely support big players who already have satellites in space, and this issue of the magazine has tried to capture some of the traditional solutions we need while also exploring different sub markets that are mushrooming to support this sector. From traditional GEO players and upcoming software-defined satellites to regional developments and startups, we have put together an interesting read to complement the satellite showcases and discussions at CABSAT this year. See you at the show.