Startup plans “gas stations” for satellite servicing

by

WASHINGTON — A startup company planning to develop orbital propellant depots to assist satellite servicing ventures has raised an initial round of funding to support a first launch as soon as next year.

Orbit Fab, a Silicon Valley-based company with about a dozen employees, said Aug. 28 that a round of funding led by venture capital firm Bolt will enable it to demonstrate technology for fuel tanks that could be used by future satellite servicing systems.

“We differentiate ourselves from the satellite servicing operators in that we’re looking to put up just dumb tanks full of propellant, to provide that propellant where it’s needed, and we’re looking to partner with the satellite servicing operators to help improve their business models,” said Daniel Faber, chief executive of Orbit Fab, in an interview.

Faber said Orbit Fab will work with companies developing satellite servicing systems rather than create its own. “We’ve seen that the satellite servicing operators have a lot on their plates standing up their businesses, so they can’t take on the extra risk of standing up a gas station business,” he said. “We decided we would take that part.”

The concept sounds simple, but comes with plenty of technical and business challenges, he acknowledged. “This hasn’t been done before because it’s not a simple thing to do,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of technical things we have to get through. We’ve got a lot of business things we have to get through.”

Faber said that Orbit Fab plans to support “a range of propellants and a range of orbits” with its depots, based on customer demand, but didn’t go into specifics. The company’s initial launch will go into low Earth orbit, he said, to test its technology. Orbit Fab hasn’t provided specifics about its technology, although an illustration released by the company showed one concept where 10 cubesat-sized tanks are attached to a central structure, which is docked to a satellite servicing vehicle.

That initial mission, scheduled for launch next year, will be done in collaboration with NASA. Faber said the agency is providing “in-kind support,” with additional details to be released in the coming weeks.

One challenge the company faces is timing the introduction of any depots so that they are ready when satellite servicing vehicles enter service, but not too early. Several companies are working on satellite servicing concepts that either provide life extension or orbital maneuvering for satellites or are able to direct refuel or performing other servicing of satellites. Some of those vehicles, though, aren’t expected to enter service until the early 2020s.

Getting ahead of the satellite servicing market is a concern, Faber said, but said the company needed to get underway now to convince satellite servicing ventures and their customers that it will have propellant depots in place that can change the economics of satellite servicing. “We need to start now to be building confidence that we will be there and ready when those businesses are able to take advantage of it,” he said. “That’s why we’re starting now.”

Faber was previously chief executive of Deep Space Industries, a company with long-term asteroid mining aspirations. He said satellite servicing and propellant depots might create demand for future asteroid-derived resources, although Orbit Fab wouldn’t rely on such resources in its business plan. “Orbit Fab is not hanging its hat on any particular method of material supply,” he said.

Faber declined to state how much the company raised in this round other than it’s enough to cover the company’s first launch. San Francisco-based Bolt, the lead investor, describes itself as providing up to $1 million in pre-seed and seed funding rounds for companies “at the intersection of hardware and software.”

“We find the team’s vision and execution in the short time since founding to be impressive and look forward to collaborating with the team to build a great company,” Greg McAdoo, general partner at Bolt, said in a statement. Bolt previously invested in SpinLaunch, a startup developing a centrifugal launch system for small satellites.