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Orbit Fab launches $30,000 satellite gas station

Orbit Fab wants to build “refueling stations” for satellites, which means it needs tank caps, a mechanism that transfers propellant from orbiting tankers to customer spacecraft. The docking device, called RAFTI, is now flight-qualified and commercially available. Price tag per port? Only $30,000.

The Colorado-based startup (and former TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield finalist) has been operating since 2018, and its CEO and co-founder Daniel Faber has worked in the aerospace industry for decades; he is best known for may be leading Deep Space Industries (DSI), a company targeting asteroid mining. The company was founded in 2012 and was acquired by Bradford Space seven years later.

“if you want [to talk about] It’s early days, that’s what,” he joked in a recent interview. As part of the company’s efforts to eventually build technology capable of detecting distant asteroids, DSI builds satellite thrusters for orbital maneuvering. The work And subsequent conversations with customers and colleagues ultimately convinced Faber that the next big opportunity was space refueling.

Part of it was simple math: Colleagues and former customers told him they could squeeze as much as $1 million in marginal revenue from satellite missions with an extra kilogram of propellant.

Track Factory DSC03417Orbit Fab on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2019

“Spacecraft are optimized for the amount of fuel they have, and when they run out, that extra kilogram will give them a million dollars in marginal revenue,” Faber said. “We create so much value out of it that we have to do it.”

The 2010s also saw the emergence of satellite services companies, such as Astroscale, which are developing technologies for space debris removal, satellite life extension, or last-mile satellite delivery. Faber calls these capabilities “trailer applications,” and he realizes that orbital refueling stations will eventually be needed to supplement this fleet.

And so Orbit Fab was born. In the first year of the company’s establishment, Raised $6 million in seed round funding Funding was provided by Bolt and Munich Re Venture Capital AG, the venture capital arm of Munich Re Group and one of the largest underwriters of satellites and rockets. In 2023, the company raised $28.5 million in Series A funding.

The startup’s technology is ambitious, but its architecture is fairly simple: The idea is to outfit customer satellites with refueling ports (Faber calls them “gas caps,” but its official name is RAFTI) while the hardware is still on Earth. RAFTI stands for “Rapid Connect Fluid Transfer Interface” and can also be used to fuel spacecraft on the ground before launch. Once a RAFTI-equipped satellite is depleted of propellant, one of Orbit Fab’s tankers will be able to retrieve some fuel from an orbital depot and deliver it directly to the customer’s satellite for refueling.

The company only sells two things: fuel and fuel fillers; as one would expect, the real money will come from fuel sales. Orbit Fab said on its website that its service to deliver up to 100 kilograms of hydrazine in geostationary orbit would cost $20 million.

Given the simplicity of the architecture, it was crucial to identify every part of the hardware; that’s why it took Orbit Fab several years to launch the fuel filler. There are many variables to consider: the cost to the customer versus the potential marginal revenue from additional on-orbit life; the impact of refueling on the customer’s spacecraft; and the challenge of developing a docking mechanism that can also deliver propellant.

In addition to all of these challenges, the company must ensure that its components meet NASA, Space Force and National Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics standards to ensure they are safe, reliable and able to withstand the harsh environment of space.

“It’s not cheap,” Faber said. “It wasn’t quick, but in the end, we had an elegant design that met these requirements and was made simple because of great design.”

Faber said one of the biggest shifts from when he started the company to now has been the rise of the U.S. Space Force and its dramatic impact on the aerospace industry. Orbit Fab ultimately turned much of its attention to addressing the emerging needs of the Space Force, which is interested in orbital maneuverability to avoid space debris or rendezvous with other satellites.

Image Source: track factory (opens in new window)

The company expects the first RAFTIs to carry customer satellites into orbit later this year. The first fueled shuttle will then enter service next year as part of a contract with the Department of Defense to deliver fuel in geostationary orbit through 2025. Orbit Fab aims to sell 100 refueling ports this year, which will allow RAFTI to put “a significant portion of its satellites into orbit,” Faber said. He added that Orbit Fab had an additional agreement with an unnamed commercial customer to provide “significant amounts of fuel” over several years.

In addition to these milestones, Faber revealed that the company already plans to upgrade RAFTI and design a variant that can support high-pressure propellants. The team is also considering redesigning the grapple housing for larger spacecraft, if the market indicates that’s what they should do next.

“SpaceX makes rockets reusable, Orbit Fab makes satellites reusable,” Faber said. “In today’s world, if you run a rocket company and you’re not working on reusable rockets, you’re heading down a dead end. The same goes for satellites: If you don’t make your satellites reusable, you’re just Putting pre-destined junk into orbit.”

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