Space Machines Company's Optimus Orbital Servicing Vehicle painted with Orbit Fab's fiducial markers. Credit: Space Machines Company

WASHINGTON – Australian in-space servicing startup Space Machines Company announced plans Dec. 5 to work with U.S. on-orbit refueling startup Orbit Fab to validate and demonstrate key technologies.

SMC is the first non-U.S. customer to use Orbit Fab’s fiducial alignment markers. The markers are painted on SMC’s Optimus Orbital Servicing Vehicle, which is set to launch in early 2024 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare flight.

Orbit Fab’s fiducial markers are designed to act like a QR code, ensuring, for example, that a fuel shuttle replenishes the correct client. The fiducial markers also ensure proper spacecraft alignment for docking.  

“Without these fiducials, mission operators would need much more complex computer vision systems, more compute power, and you might even need artificial intelligence,” Orbit Fab CEO Daniel Faber told SpaceNews by email. “You’ve got to deal with very difficult lighting effects. These fiducial markers really simplify the process of having our Orbit Fab fuel shuttles approach a spacecraft and prepare and align for secure docking and refueling in space.”

SMC’s work with Orbit Fab “will serve as a pioneering example of in-space validation of these groundbreaking technologies,” Rajat Kulshrestha, SMC co-founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Orbit Fab fiducial markers installed on Space Machine Company’s Optimus Orbital Servicing Vehicle manufactured in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Space Machine Company

Bundles with RAFTI

Orbit Fab has bundled its fiducial marker system with the company’s refueling port known as RAFTI, or Rapidly Attachable Fuel Transfer Interface.

“We’ve provided RAFTI and fiducials to a number of government and commercial companies to make their spacecraft refuelable and safe for rendezvous and docking procedures and missions in space,” Faber said.

Orbit Fab, SMC and a third company launching a satellite on Transporter 10 rely on Orbit Fab’s fiducial markers, Orbit Fab Chief Commercial Officer Adam Harris said by email.

“Having these fiducials on missions like the SMC Optimus mission allows us to test the rendezvous-docking capabilities and really prove that out,” Faber said.

Orbit Fab has three launches set for 2025 to deliver fuel for U.S. government customers. In one of the demonstration missions, Orbit Fab plans to supply the U.S. Space Force Tetra-5 spacecraft with hydrazine.

“And those government customers will have RAFTI and fiducial markers to make this critical fuel delivery missions possible,” Faber said. “Orbit Fab must demonstrate that our refueling systems work, and we need to demonstrate the effectiveness of our fuel delivery on orbit. This drives our confidence in our own technology and the customers’ confidence in our technology and breakthrough refueling services.”

ITAR Issue

A hurdle for international cooperation in satellite servicing is ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

The list of military technologies strictly controlled for export includes systems related to docking and grappling objects in space.

Orbit Fab is advocating for an ITAR exception for cooperative docking technologies, “so that we can have more cooperation with ally countries like Australia and the UK and vehicles like SMC’s Optimus Orbital Servicing Vehicle,” Harris said. “If spacecraft are doing business together and using solutions like fiducial markers to ensure safe, sustainable, and responsible rendezvous and docking, we’re pushing for an agreement where this can happen outside of ITAR controls. These ITAR regulations were initially designed to limit non-cooperative docking in space.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...