Orbit Fab Furphy experiment on ISS
NASA astronaut Christina Koch monitors a satellite refueling experiment called Furphy on the ISS developed by startup company Orbit Fab. Credit: Orbit Fab

WASHINGTON — A startup that seeks to create refueling facilities in orbit for satellites has received a government grant to develop one essential technology for that system.

San Francisco-based Orbit Fab received an award from America’s Seed Fund, a grant program run the National Science Foundation’s (NSF), the company announced March 31. The company plans to use the $250,000 grant to test a docking system that will allow satellites to be refueled.

“What we’re trying to do here is develop a cooperative docking system,” said Daniel Faber, chief executive of Orbit Fab, in an interview. “We’re trying to define a low-cost solution for both the active and the passive side for a refueling docking system. That way, our refueling ecosystem becomes a lot more viable.”

The NSF award will allow Orbit Fab to refine the requirements for the system by talking with potential customers, along with performing modeling and simulations. That will be followed by tests of the technology on an air-bearing table, which the company hopes to carry out this summer.

The award is similar to Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs by other agencies, such as NASA and the U.S. Air Force, and includes an option for a second phase that would be worth between $1 million and $1.5 million. “That lets us take those requirements and implement them with a whole lot more testing,” he said, such as six-degree-of-freedom tests of the system. “Ultimately, getting to orbital flight testing is the goal.”

The company has good relationships with the Air Force and NASA, but went with the NSF award because of its emphasis on supporting technologies that can become commercially viable. “The thing that really surprised me about the NSF is the focus on commercialization,” he said. “The NSF has a huge push to make sure that this is a product.”

Faber likened the America’s Seed Fund program to startup accelerators like the Techstars Starbust Space Accelerator, which Orbit Fab participated in last year. “Half their assessment for phase 2 is your commercialization plan, which is not something I’ve ever heard of for a NASA SBIR,” he said. “They’re pushing us to talk to customers and think about product design.”

The docking system technology funded by the NSF will build upon previous work by Orbit Fab, including testing of fluid transfer technology on the International Space Station and development of a replacement for satellite fill/drain valves that enables in-space refueling. All that will support a fuel tanker the company plans to develop to refuel spacecraft.

Faber said that Northrop Grumman’s successful demonstration of its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) spacecraft in February, which docked with the Intelsat-901 satellite, has helped raise the profile of satellite servicing, even if the technologies used are different than what Orbit Fab is developing.

“There was an aspect of market risk when we started this company,” he said, that has been eliminated by the successful MEV mission. “I expect that will create even more interest.”

Work is continuing, he added, despite the stay-at-home orders in California enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “It slowed us down a little,” he said, as the company seeks to find new machine shops to perform work. The classification of aerospace manufacturing as a critical industry has helped mitigate those effects.

“Everything looks good now,” he said, including discussions with potential partners. “Whether that holds up is a good question. We’ll have to see how long this lasts and what it does to the industry.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...