WASHINGTON — Astroscale U.S., a provider of on-orbit services to extend the life of satellites, has signed an agreement with the U.S. Space Force to co-invest in an on-orbit refueling vehicle.

Col. Joyce Bulson, project manager at Space Systems Command, said the agreement includes $25.5 million in government funding and approximately $12 million to be provided by Astroscale. The company will deliver in 24 months a “manifest ready” prototype vehicle capable of refueling a satellite in orbit, Bulson said Sept. 25 in an interview with SpaceNews.

Bulson leads a new office based at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, that oversees space mobility and logistics programs.

Astroscale is headquartered in Japan. Its U.S. subsidiary is based in Colorado. The company focuses on space sustainability technologies such as debris removal and on-orbit satellite servicing. 

Astroscale won a so-called Other Transaction Authority, or OTA, contract. OTAs give the government flexibility to negotiate with contractors and share the cost of projects. 

Project attracted 23 bids

The $25.5 million contract awarded to Astroscale was funded by a $30 million congressional earmark added to the Space Force’s 2023 budget.

Bulson said Astroscale’s bid was one of 23 received through the  Space Enterprise Consortium, known as SpEC, an organization created to attract startups and commercial companies to compete for defense programs. 

The Space Force wants to take advantage of commercial innovations in space services, Bulson said. “I think it’s extremely exciting to be on the cusp of this emerging technology.”

Astroscale’s vehicle will be designated APS-R, for Astroscale Prototype Servicer for Refueling.  It will use a refueling port made by Orbit Fab called RAFTI — short for rapidly attachable fluid transfer interface. 

The RAFTI port is one of the commercial interfaces that are entering the market for in-space refueling. Astroscale plans to use Orbit Fab refueling services for its commercial missions.  

The Space Force prototype refueling vehicle will be based on an Astroscale commercial design, Bulson said. “We are trying to pass on as few military-unique requirements to industry as possible, and want them to just demonstrate what is possible.”

On-orbit demonstration TBD

It has yet to be determined if or when Astroscale’s vehicle will launch to orbit for an in-space demonstration. If that were to happen, a potential client satellite could be one of the Tetra-5 small satellites projected to launch in 2025 for an on-orbit refueling experiment funded by the Space Force and the Defense Innovation Unit. These satellites also are equipped with the RAFTI port. 

Bulson said the Space Force has not yet settled on a particular standard for refueling ports as the industry is still sorting that out. “We’d like to keep options open as long as possible so we have competition,” she said. “We feel it’s early enough in the market to go ahead and try to prove concepts out.”

The goal is to try to capture what’s available in the market and bridge the gap between what commercial companies can do today and what military users are asking for, said Bulson. 

Although space logistics projects are now being funded by congressional add-ons, the Space Force plans to advocate for long-term funding starting in the 2026 budget cycle, she said. 

“We’re living basically year to year with congressional plus ups,” Bulson said. “The hope is that we have a compelling case that we put into the fiscal year 2026 program that makes sense to all of our stakeholders.”

If Congress happens to insert additional funding in the 2024 budget, Bulson said, other promising projects that didn’t make the cut this time were set aside by the SpEC consortium in case more funding becomes available. 

“We already have approved proposals,” she said. “We can put them on contract very quickly” as the source selection has already been done.

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...