back to article Startup wants to build a space station that refuels satellites by 2025

Spacecraft running low on fuel could get a refill from an orbital station by the year 2025, according to a startup named Orbit Fab that reckons it can charge $20 million to top up your tank. The American upstart believes there's a market for its planned service because the growing number of companies launching satellites want …

  1. heyrick Silver badge

    and you thought fuel prices down here were bad!

    In air refueling is hard.

    In space? With the potential of what happens if two craft crash? Might explain the price tag...

    1. Oglethorpe

      Re: and you thought fuel prices down here were bad!

      It presents a different set of challenges with some intersection. In aircraft, you have the issues of interfering aerodynamics and mismatched cruise speeds (especially if a fixed wing is supplying fuel to a helicopter), which are absent in space. For spacecraft, you have to do orbital intersections before final fine manoeuvres to dock, with the ever present risk that thruster failure during gap-closing manoeuvres might slam your craft together. In 2D, it's a bit like the difference between transferring fuel between cars with a minimum speed vs transferring objects between people on an ice rink, blasting around with CO2 extinguishers.

      KSP is a fun way to learn about the latter and will nicely illustrate why they're using service shuttles rather than moving the whole fuel platform or expecting the satellites to come to them.

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: and you thought fuel prices down here were bad!

      cost per kg of fuel to deliver it from Earth to the orbiting fuel station, plus fuel delivery bots that ALSO consume fuel, cost of earth-bound operators and all of the infrastructure, and THEN you have to make a profit to pay back the investors. That kinda justifies it.

      Plus when you are the ONLY fuel station for 36,000 km you can charge "whatever the market will bear"

      (I suppose getting a "tow" might be an interesting add-on service - to put a satellite back into orbit if it runs out of fuel and cannot do station keeping for some reason).

      Still cheaper than a NEW satellite.

  2. Zebo-the-Fat


    Minor typo, geostationary orbit is 35,785 km not 300Km small difference, but probably important when you are low on fuel!

    1. Oglethorpe

      Re: Oops!

      It could use all that fuel to stay geostationary at 300km but it probably wouldn't be up there for long and rendezvous would be a pain.

    2. b0llchit Silver badge

      Re: Oops!

      300 km is the altitude where the fireball will be visible. The cause is a big boom which will propel the surviving debris(*) up into higher orbit and, with some luck, all the way to GEO.

      (*)That is why they already have the debris removal firm as customer. It is about symmetry of work. One has it, the other provides it, for the other to have it, to be provided, etc..

    3. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: Oops!

      I assumed they meant it orbited 300km below GSO. That would have it slowly moving around the Earth rather than staying over one spot, to allow it to visit any GSO location on a regular basis - since you don't want to waste fuel maneuvering from satellite to satellite when you can have them "come" to you.

      That's typically how GSO satellites move from one position to another - they duck a bit closer to the Earth until the location they want to be comes up and then raise orbit to their new slot. They typically move closer because ~300 km above GSO is the "graveyard orbit" where GSO satellites are retired.

      1. Cuddles Silver badge

        Re: Oops!

        "I assumed they meant it orbited 300km below GSO."

        The linked article says it will orbit 300km above GSO, so close enough. "Just below" the graveyard orbit apparently. I guess they go with that direction so it doesn't get in the way of satellites using the lower orbit to reposition themselves, and if something goes wrong with the refuelling then you're already in the right place. It appears to be a mistake by the author here at El Reg that puts the orbit 300km from Earth.

  3. SusiW
    Thumb Up

    Oh PLEASE make this happen!

    Ever since I saw the moon landing as a kid I have been waiting for our Glorious Flash Gordon Space Future to happen. Waiting desperately for Humanity to finally leave this asteroid-target before it's too late.

    It's constantly been held back by shortsighted self-serving politicians and, well... idiots.

    Anything that helps get us Out There a bit farther or assist the devices already in-flight is a massive plus.

    "andy 1??", et al, the floor is yours... <yawn>

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge


      "It's constantly been held back by shortsighted self-serving politicians and, well... idiots."

      While there is a lot of that to go around. We're also held back by the science. It's one helluva hostile environment outside the safety of Biosphere 1. And your body rather likes gravity. A Flash Gordon Future is not on the cards.

      Still, this is epically cool and should be done.

      1. IvyKing


        One of my first thoughts in seeing the picture of the station was the LIS episode where the Jupiter comes across a derelict refueling station.

      2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge


        See, for example this.

        And those guys are still pretty shielded by the earth. Gallivanting around the galaxy means getting cancer. We need genetic therapies that can reverse these many other problems.

        1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge


          Dr. Bellfriar : Everyone who's been into deep space has had the Terran ague, or the three-day sweats as it's commonly known as.

          Here's hoping they don't forget how to read.

  4. 42656e4d203239 Bronze badge

    RUD not an option

    How does one get the hydrazine up there to refuel the refuling platform?

    Several issues spring to mind... not least showering the earth in burning hydrazine in the event of a RUD on the pad, or later in the flight.... it's lovely stuff just the sort of thing to ruin your day completely.

    I guess you could make the stuff in orbit providing the process is automatic and the reagents required are less problematic than the N2H4 itself.

    Not just rocket science but chemical engineering. All good popcorn worthy stuff, unless this project is just a venture capital black hole....

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: How to get the hydrzine to GEO

      There is a long list of rockets that use unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide as propellants. Use one of those and no-one is going to care about a few hundred kilos of hydrazine in the middle of a RUD. Even better, some launch providers dump their first stages (with residuals) on nearby villages by design. None of the locals complain about that any more.

      1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        Re: How to get the hydrzine to GEO

        "None of the locals complain about that any more."

        Is that because there is no-one left to complain...? Asking for some dictators I know...

  5. Potemkine! Silver badge

    It's a good idea. Throwing satellites away because their tank is empty is a waste and there's enough junk in space.

    Northrop's Mission Extension Vehicle is an interesting solution too. Maybe would it be also possible to add a "plugin" to existing satellites to extend their lives?

    Anyway, it goes in the right direction.

    == Bring us Dabbsy back! ==

  6. Locomotion69

    Charge for additional services

    What about cleaning the "windscreen", or camera lenses as a premium service ?

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Charge for additional services

      Check the tyres and oil.

  7. iron Silver badge

    That rendering looks like something made by the BBC props dept. in the 70s for Blake 7 or Dr Who.

    1. slimshady76

      what's old is new again! Wait until you see Thunderbird 3 docked onto ones of these babies... That'll show you!

  8. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Orbital refueling station

    An interesting idea, but one that is probably going to have to wait a few years before being useful.

    And I mean, a few years after it is in orbit.

    I don't think that todays' satellites are capable of being refueled - but I don't know for sure. Once the orbital station is in place and has published its fueling procedure, maybe satellite makers can take that into account but, today, nobody has planned for that and planning is everything where a satellite is concerned.

    It's a good idea, for sure, but I have the feeling the company is going to need to survive at least twenty years before actually starting to make any money.

    1. asphytxtc

      Re: Orbital refueling station

      Today's satellites? No.. However there is the RAFTI standard interface that did a test flight last year. It's backed by a group of about 30 companies as far as I remember and supports most non cryogenic fuels that you'd find on orbital birds these days: MMH, UDMH, NTO etc.

      Early days sure, but far advanced by space standards!

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Orbital refueling station

        Sounds a lot more advanced than standardised plugs for EVs were at a similar stage :-)

    2. DS999 Silver badge

      Fuel filler cap

      Yeah that was my question that they don't seem to bother explaining, or at least it isn't mentioned in the article. Maybe satellites built by a certain company (i.e. Boeing, Airbus, etc.) each have their own system for fueling Earthside, but being compatible with even one major manufacturer's "standard" would give them plenty of potential customers. Compatibility with more than one is a bonus.

      Engineers designing mil spec/aerospace stuff seem to have some pretty tight standards, i.e. rather than "1/8 turn beyond hand tighten" or similar someone doing trades here might see they'd specify the exact amount of torque to tighten every bolt and screw. So perhaps whatever closure method the fuel tank uses can be relied upon in a similar way, making it possible to design something that if it opens one should open them all. So hopefully no worries about running into a satellite where the guy closing the fuel port gave it a few extra twists to "make sure it doesn't shake loose during launch" or whatever lol!

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Fuel filler cap

        "1/8 turn beyond hand tighten"

        Well, that's a bit of a vague quantity given that Dwayne Johnson and, well, myself, could differ in that respect by several entire turns...

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Fuel filler cap

          Hence why milspec requires torque of a given quantity, rather than relying on Captain America's before and after ability to hand tighten a screw :)

  9. Death Boffin

    Check the oil

    This is great! Does it come with orbital mechanics?

    1. adam 40 Silver badge

      Re: Check the oil

      Ooooh! Good job nobody can hear us scream in space!

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

        Re: Check the oil

        Washing the windscreen might be a problem.

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