Orbit Fab announces in-space hydrazine refueling service

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TITUSVILLE, Fla. — Orbit Fab, a startup developing infrastructure for in-space refueling of spacecraft, will start offering hydrazine for satellites in geostationary orbit as soon as 2025 at a price of $20 million.

The company announced Aug. 30 its plans to start offering refueling services for GEO spacecraft using a depot and “fuel shuttle” spacecraft. That depot will also be able to support spacecraft such as servicing vehicles that can travel to the depot for “self-service” refueling.

At the $20 million price announced by Orbit Fab, the company would provide up to 100 kilograms of hydrazine. It’s the first time that the company has set a price for providing fuel, a move it says it made to help potential customers better understand the economics of refueling.

“There hasn’t been certainty in the market about what it would cost to do a refueling and so that’s what we’re hoping to provide with this announcement,” said Adam Harris, vice president of business development at Orbit Fab, in an interview.

Orbit Fab will initially offer the service in GEO, with a depot operating in what Jeremy Schiel, co-founder of Orbit Fab, called a “service lane” orbit about 300 kilometers above GEO. That’s designed to keep the depot out of the active belt of GEO satellites but just below the graveyard orbit of defunct satellites.

In addition to the depot, Orbit Fab is developing a shuttle that would transport fuel to satellites. That would work for spacecraft that are equipped with a refueling port called the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI) that Orbit Fab has developed for “cooperative docking,” said Harris. “That enables these commercial price points for fuel delivery. We’re not doing sophisticated surgery on a spacecraft.”

Most spacecraft in GEO today, though, don’t have RAFTI ports. Orbit Fab would instead work with servicing vehicles from companies like Astroscale and Northrop Grumman, refueling those spacecraft. “They can go service the legacy satellites and we can service the servicing vehicles that are coming online,” Schiel said. “Eventually, when everyone’s flying a RAFTI fueling port, we can start going directly to them.”

Harris said Orbit Fab is starting with hydrazine since it is commonly used in both commercial and government spacecraft. “We’re seeing major pull from the Department of Defense, NASA and the commercial sector in hydrazine,” he said, but added the company expects to support other fuels for both chemical and electric propulsion systems over time.

Schiel said Orbit Fab has both government and commercial operators “who have expressed explicit interest to get refueled in the next three to five years,” but the company has not disclosed any beyond Astroscale, which announced a deal with Orbit Fab for xenon refueling services in January. “We’re working to get a few more by the end of the year.”

The design of the depot, he said, is “basically done,” while the company is actively working on the design of the fuel shuttle. The company has been using a series of government contracts to work on key technologies for that spacecraft.

Orbit Fab is starting in GEO because of the customer demand they are seeing as well as the simplicity of operating there versus the wide range of low Earth orbits used by different spacecraft. “It’s much easier to come up with a price for GEO because it’s one orbit,” Schiel said. “You’re going to have to have a different price point on each different orbit in LEO because of how you’re going to get there. We’re tackling the easy commercial price of GEO first and then we’ll start working our way down.”