WASHINGTON — Astroscale U.S., a provider of on-orbit services to extend the life of satellites, has signed an agreement to use Orbit Fab’s in-space refueling tankers, the companies announced Jan. 11.

Orbit Fab, a startup offering “gas stations in space,” will refuel Astroscale’s geostationary satellite servicing spacecraft known as LEXI, short for Life Extension In-Orbit.

The agreement commits Orbit Fab to supply up to 1,000 kilograms of Xenon propellant to refuel Astroscale’s LEXI vehicles, the first of which is projected to launch in 2026.

Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Astroscale U.S., said the agreement is significant because the ability to refuel in orbit will allow LEXI vehicles to service more customers over longer periods of time without having to worry about running out of fuel. 

Capabilities to extend the life of satellites using vehicles like LEXI and the ability to refuel those servicing vehicles “make orbital operations more sustainable,” Lopez told reporters in a video chat Jan. 11.

Astroscale, which is headquartered in Japan and operates a separate subsidiary in the United States, entered the satellite servicing market in 2020 after acquiring Effective Space Solutions, an Israeli satellite life-extension and servicing company that designed a vehicle called Space Drone. 

Lopez said the company used the intellectual property from ESS to develop LEXI and is adding more advanced features including four robotic arms. The sensors are being developed at Astroscale’s facility in Israel and the vehicle will be assembled in the United States. 

LEXI will provide services like station keeping and attitude control, momentum management, inclination correction, geostationary orbit relocation and retirement to graveyard orbit, said Lopez.

Orbit Fab CEO Daniel Faber said the agreement with Astroscale is a model for how in-space servicing companies can work together to grow the space economy. “We can monetize a portion of our contracts before we make delivery to our customers, allowing us to quickly build out our network of tankers and shuttles,” he said.

Orbit Fab, a startup founded in 2018, developed a refueling port known as RAFTI, short for Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface. The port is being offered to government and commercial operators to make their satellites compatible with Orbit Fab’s refueling tankers. 

The company last year deployed its first propellant-storage tanker in low Earth orbit and plans to launch its first tanker to geostationary orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 lunar lander mission projected for late 2022 or early 2023.  Orbit Fab’s first two fuel shuttles in LEO are expected to be operational in 2023.

“Our architecture involves tankers that contain a lot of fuel and fuel shuttles to transfer fuel between the tankers and operational spacecraft,” said Faber. 

Astroscale has not yet announced any customers for LEXI. Lopez declined to name any prospective customers but said the company is targeting both commercial and government operators. 

Orbit Fab expects to deploy dozens of fuel tankers and shuttles in the next five to 10 years both in low Earth orbit and in geostationary orbit. Lopez and Faber said the companies are exploring additional opportunities to expand the on-orbit servicing market, including transferring fuel from tankers directly to operational satellites. 

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...