WASHINGTON — Astroscale is developing an in-space refueling vehicle that will shuttle back and forth between a fuel depot in geostationary Earth orbit and a client satellite. 

The refueling vehicle will carry and transfer hydrazine to its client spacecraft, “rather than the client having to maneuver to a fuel depot, allowing client operations to continue uninterrupted,” the company said Jan. 17.

Astroscale, headquartered in Japan with a U.S. subsidiary based in Colorado, is a provider of space services to extend the life of satellites. The company last year won a $25.5 million contract from the U.S. Space Force to develop a refueling vehicle. Under the private-public partnership agreement, the project will get an additional $12 million in funding from Astroscale and its suppliers. 

Named APS-R, for Astroscale Prototype Servicer for Refueling, the vehicle will be a small satellite about the size of a gas pump, designed to conduct multiple refueling missions in GEO. 

APS-R will rendezvous and dock with a fuel depot operated by Orbit Fab, a startup developing so-called gas stations in space. The company is working on a hydrazine fueling station to be deployed 36,000 kilometers above Earth, partly funded by a $13.3 million contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

According to Astroscale’s concept of operations, a potential client satellite receiving fuel could be the company’s Life Extension In-Orbit (LEXI), designed to perform life extension services in geostationary orbit. Astroscale two years ago announced plans to launch LEXI in 2026 and signed an agreement with Orbit Fab for refueling services.

In its Jan. 17 announcement, Astroscale said it plans to deliver the APS-R by 2026. 

Satellite to be manufactured in Texas

The refueler will be an ESPA-class satellite, a ring-shaped platform that attaches to the primary payload on a launch vehicle. ESPA is short for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter. 

Astroscale envisions deploying the LEXI client vehicle in a GEO orbit about 300 kilometers below Orbit Fab’s orbiting fuel depot. 

APS-R will be manufactured at the Southwest Research Institute’s new smallsat assembly facility in San Antonio, Texas. Both the APS-R and LEXI will use Orbit Fab’s refueling ports to ensure they can dock properly.

“This innovation in on-orbit servicing will ultimately extend the range and mobility of satellites in orbit, allowing the U.S. Space Force to do more with their operational assets,” said Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Astroscale U.S.

Col. Joyce Bulson, leader of the Space Force’s space mobility and logistics program, said the collaboration with Astroscale “signifies a bold step forward in our efforts to secure and strengthen the U.S. Space Force’s position in an ever-evolving space domain, reinforcing our commitment to innovation and ensuring the sustainability of our space assets.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...