WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory signed a research agreement with a company pioneering orbital refueling stations for spacecraft, signaling the military’s interest in using the technology to keep satellites on orbit longer.
While satellites frequently outlive their anticipated service lives, the finite amount of fuel they can carry often brings their orbital careers to an end. In recent years, companies have begun piloting and offering on-orbit services to provide supplemental fuel or towing services to further extend the lives of satellites. The most high-profile example is SpaceLogistics, a Northrop Grumman company that is currently using Mission Extension Vehicles that attach to satellites and act as a supplemental fuel source to maneuver through orbit.
But there are other companies popping up to offer similar services, such as Astroscale and Orbit Fab.
Orbit Fab’s business model is to put gas stations on orbit, where spacecraft can dock with them and take in fuel through a specially designed service valve.
Orbit Fab announced Oct. 14 that it signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, with AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. As part of the agreement, the company will share technical details about its solution, including the interface it will use to transfer fuel in space. The Air Force has already teamed with the company under a $3 million program to flight-qualify that service valve. The Air Force will review those technologies and advise on the design. Orbit Fab will also be able to use AFRL facilities to develop and qualify its product.
“Orbit Fab is an early leader for in-orbit refueling, offering significant extension of space vehicle lifetimes, increased in-orbit mobility, and new mission concept options. This is a key strategic opportunity for the AFRL to be able to benefit from increasing the reusability of our space assets through knowledge exchange with Orbit Fab,” said AFRL Program Manager Karl Stolleis in a statement.
The company has seen significant investment recently. In September Orbit Fab announced that it had raised $10 million, with investors including defense industry giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.