According tomedia TechCrunch, the in-orbit satellite “refueling” technology is closer than ever, which can greatly help reduce the cost and sustainability of orbital operations. Startup OrbitFab, one of the companies working on track “refueling” technology, has just won a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Early In-Depth Technology Research and Development Program, the U.S. Seed Fund, to achieve its goals.
The contract is designed to develop a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one spacecraft to another. OrbitFab, which was unveiled in Disrupt last October, makes it a possible connector hardware and is now called the Fast Connectable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). RAFTI is intended to replace existing valves used for satellites to refuel and release propellants for spacecraft, but will seek to establish new standards to provide easy interoperability with ground “refueling” and space “refueling” (or fuel transfer from satellite to other).
OrbitFab has managed to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) twice and last year became the first private company ever to supply water to an orbiting laboratory. It’s not surprising that the new contract will help it demonstrate the docking process that RAFTI promoted at its test facility this summer.
In the long run, this is only the first phase of a multi-vote funding agreement with the NSF. The first phase, which included a $250,000 first demonstration, will culminate in the first trial run of space fuel sales operations, orbitFab chief marketing officer Jeremy Schiel said should be completed within two years. “This will involve two satellites, our fuel tanks and our customer satellites, and repeat this process several times to demonstrate our capabilities during the low-Earth orbit docking, fuel exchange and decoupling process,” he wrote. “
Several companies are currently working on a number of technology projects and demonstrations around the track “refueling”, and some of the industry’s largest companies are working to meet this challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is designed to simplify and be easy to implement, as well as common standards that can be used in satellites of various sizes in many companies. OrbitFab has said it is working with 30 different activities and organizations to make RAFTI a widely used interface.
If successful, OrbitFab could support a future orbital commercial operating environment in which the cost of fuel is almost no longer an issue, and the “gas stations” that flow in orbit can meet the spacecraft’s needs once they reach space.