Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon

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Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon

Orbit Fab, the first company to put a satellite refueling depot in Earth orbit, has entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to advance a public-private partnership and develop the company’s technology.

Although it was announced in October, the knowledge-sharing agreement went into effect in 2020. In exchange for access to Orbit Fab’s hardware products and technical details, the DoD will review the company’s refueling technologies, advise on requirements and designs, and make available its facilities for advancing performance and qualification.

Specifically, Orbit Fab signed the agreement with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)’s Space Vehicle Directorate, and the Spacecraft Technology Division.

Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon
Adam Harris

“Orbit Fab is proud to support the DoD,” said Adam Harris, Orbit Fab Vice President of Business Development. “Space Force and AFRL are taking on new mission areas such as responsive space which is enabled by refueling. Our goal is for future spacecraft operators to never have to worry about using propellant when the mission demands it.”

Orbit Fab provides the DoD with two of its signature products: the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI) and a cooperative docking guidance solution. Both are key to its vision of an in-space economy fueled by a network of “gas stations” orbiting Earth.

RAFTI consists of a service valve and three alignment markers that assist cooperative docking. As an open-license product, it is intended to be built by the customers themselves or purchased from a manufacturer, then integrated with a spacecraft to allow refueling. An Orbit Fab shuttle collects propellent from one of its tankers, pulls the customer spacecraft close with a four-finger grip, then refuels it. The customer only has to hold its craft’s attitude steady, and Orbit Fab handles the rest.

Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon
Jeremy Schiel

“RAFTI to us is more of a means to an end,” said Jeremy Schiel, founder and CDO at Orbit Fab. “When we started the company, there was no fill-in drain valve that could do what we wanted, so we set out to be the surrogate for the industry to manufacture one. We talked with over 150 companies, gathering their requirements and making sure the refueling valve would be everything they need it to be.”

Orbit Fab was founded in 2018. During a test mission in June the following year, it became the first private company to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with water. It used the resulting data to attract commercial customers, and with the help of partners including SCOUT, Benchmark Space Systems and Astro Digital, launched the Tenzing Tanker-001 into low Earth orbit (LEO) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 30, 2021.

The next tanker is aimed to launch in 2023 to geosynchronous orbit (GEO) while Orbit Fab is also planning to operate in cis-lunar space as well.

In theory, the fuel tankers could support the in-space economy in multiple ways. With propellent waiting for them in space, launch vehicles could carry just enough fuel to get a spacecraft into orbit where it can refuel, greatly reducing the cost of launches and allowing for smaller, lighter rockets with more payloads. Once in space, the tankers could extend a spacecraft’s lifetime by providing it with unlimited fuel and enable it to perform maneuvers without worrying so much about the cost.

Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon“Anytime you need to move an asset, whether it be to avoid a collision event or because the mission changes, that’s a three-day meeting to figure out, ‘how much fuel do we have? How much fuel are we going to lose? Is this worth the decrease in time for this asset?’” Shiel said.

Orbit Fab has been in talks with the DoD since 2019. Previously, it finished a $3 million program with the U.S. Air Force to fully flight qualify the RAFTI service valve, and it also received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to test its docking guidance system.

Tenzing is not designed to work with DoD assets, but by sharing data and understanding the Pentagon’s needs through the CRADA agreement, Orbit Fab hopes to increase the DoD’s confidence in its technology and acquire it as a customer within the next several years. Ultimately, Shiel said, the company envisions a consumer base split 50/50 between defense and commercial customers.

Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon
Karl Stolleis

“Orbit Fab is an early leader for in-orbit refueling, offering a significant extension of space vehicle lifetimes, increased in-orbit mobility, and new mission concept options,” said Karl Stolleis, program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory. “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.”

Orbit Fab’s ‘Gas Stations in Space’ Sign Deal With Pentagon
Daniel Faber

“This collaboration is a testament to the quality and readiness of our products,” said Orbit Fab founder and CEO Daniel Faber. “Iterating on our cooperative Rendezvous Proximity Operations and Docking (RPOD) guidance solution with the AFRL is a valuable step in our vision to see Orbit Fab as the primary distributor of in-orbit propellant for both commercial and defense partners.”

Editor’s Note: Orbit Fab Founder and CEO Daniel Faber previously appeared on Space Channel’s Space Economy Show to discuss his vision for private industry in space and Orbit Fab’s role in it. 

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