Orbit Fab to launch first fuel tanker in 2021 with Spaceflight

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This article was updated Nov. 17 at 8 pm Eastern time with information about the Astro Digital satellite housing the Orbit Fab tanker and Accion System thrusters to be demonstrated on the same spacecraft.

SAN FRANCISCO – Orbit Fab, a startup preparing to establish fuel depots in space, announced an agreement Nov. 17 with Spaceflight Inc. to send its first microsatellite into orbit in 2021.

Under the agreement, Orbit Fab’s first operational fuel depot, Tanker-001 Tenzing, will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 as early as June 2021. Tanker-001 Tenzing will store a green propellant in sun synchronous orbit to refuel other spacecraft, Orbit Fab CEO Daniel Faber told SpaceNews.

“We’re building the world’s first operational satellite fuel depot,” Faber said. “This helps us solve the chicken and egg problem. No one is buying fuel in orbit because no one is selling it. We built an egg.”

Orbit Fab has not yet said what type of propellant it will offer or how much of it will be stored, but Faber calls Tanker-001 Tenzing a minimum viable product.

“We are putting inventory into orbit as a demonstration and a signal of our commitment to take different fuels to different orbits,” Faber said.

In-orbit servicing is rapidly gaining steam as startups and industry giants develop and demonstrate the technology. The first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) built by Northrop Grumman subsidiary Space Logistics docked with an Intelsat satellite in February. Space Logistics’ second MEV launched in August is on its way to a second Intelsat satellite.

Orbit Fab, a venture-backed startup founded in 2018, is “laser focused on storable propellant and the technologies that are needed to allow our customers to get access to that propellant,” Faber said.

Orbit Fab worked with dozens of companies and government agencies to develop one of those technologies, the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI) also known as the Satellite Gas Cap.

“Orbit Fab’s RAFTI supports the Air Force and Space Force need for space combat logistics capabilities (On-Orbit Servicing), which enables space domain awareness,” Jeremy Schiel, Orbit Fab chief development officer, said in a statement. “Refueling is a requirement in the emerging Space Force architecture and for good reason. You don’t want to run out of fuel in the middle of a confrontation.”

Orbit Fab’s Tanker-001 Tenzing scheduled to launch on a Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle will be housed in an Astro Digital satellite based on its Corvus-XL bus.

Brian Cooper, Astro Digital lead systems engineer, said by email the mission is a good example of Astro Digitals mission-as-a-service business because alongside Tanker-oo1 Tenzing, the satellite will house a pair of Accion Systems  TILE2 thrusters.

“This mission will confirm the performance specifications of the TILE system, demonstrate lifetime capability on-orbit and serve as a pathfinder for high-efficiency thruster operations in future small satellite missions,” Accion Systems CEO Peter Kant said by email.

Accion is marketing its Tile 2 thrusters for microsatellite and nanosatellite deorbiting and collision avoidance.
Astro Digital plans to assemble, integrate, test and operate the satellite at its Santa Clara, California, facility.

Orbit Fab won a $3 million U.S. Air Force contract earlier this year to flight qualify RAFTI. Orbit Fab also received a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop a cooperative satellite docking system.