For several decades since the first satellite was launched, scientists and researchers globally have been looking for satellites to refuel while they are in space to expand their lifecycles. This was largely due to the reason that there were limitations regarding the fuel capacity satellites could carry to space. Therefore, reusable and refillable options have always been on the wish list of satellite operators because of the high cost associated with building and launching satellites.
In-orbit satellite refueling today is not only a widely accepted concept but also a way that is expected to bring about a paradigm shift in the entire space economy.
While the concept of in-orbit refueling has existed for decades, the commercialization of these services took a long time to be discovered. Today, several organizations and startups have emerged to develop practical and economical solutions for the commercialization of satellite servicing.
According to the latest study from BIS Research, the global space in-orbit refueling market is expected to reach $1.09 billion by 2032. Additionally, the growth rate for this market between 2026 and 2032 is projected to be 103.85%. The key factor driving the market growth is expected to be the increase in demand for reusable and sustainable space systems.
Recently, BIS Research hosted an extensive webinar on “In-orbit Refueling – In-Space Economy & Emerging Growth Opportunities“. The agenda of this webinar was to highlight the various factors that are working as a catalyst in transforming the satellite industry globally and their impact on future projects involved in this industry.
Key speakers in the webinar:
Nilopal Ojha – Nilopal is one of the lead research analysts within the Aerospace & Defense unit of BIS Research.
Amy Gracia – Amy is associated with the Aerospace & Defense domain at BIS Research as one of the lead research analysts.
Arun Kumar Sampathkumar – Arun is the principal analyst within the Aerospace & Defense unit of BIS Research.
Daniel Faber – Daniel is the CEO and Founder of Orbit Fab and has more than 20 years of experience in space technology.
Significant quality discussion and knowledge were shared during the webinar. At the end of the session, the attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions to the panelists. Following is a list of some of those questions, along with the answers provided by the speakers.
Q1. What are the future opportunities for an in-orbit refueling depot, and who will be the first set of customers for such a solution?
Daniel: Talking about the future opportunities for the in-orbit refueling depot, the tow trucks in spaces will be utilized for various purposes. From orbital transfer vehicles, inspection services, life extension services, and tugs to dealing with active degree removal and deorbit as well as robotic repair and assembly; there are a lot of business models that come under satellite servicing, all of which need fuel; some of them more than others.
In the capacity of the overall market, in fact, to serve legacy spacecraft, we look to these tow truck operators to provide that service. They have complex robotics to work with legacy spacecraft that weren’t designed to be refueled or repaired, so they need more complex robotics and docking. We’re also looking at commercial spacecraft from now on. Communications, remote sensing, and commercial space stations being built for the customers will be able to refuel directly.
So, phase two of the plan is to refuel all the new constellations and new satellites directly. Additionally, the first customer that Orbitfab has announced is the deal with Astroscale, along with an agreement with the U.S. Space Force. So, we see commercial customers and government customers on the commercial side.
Q2. How can we book a refuel? What size of debris did you factor into your cost estimates of debris removal with/without refuel?
Daniel: Booking a refuel is simple with us. All you need to do is to connect to our business development team. We’d like to understand where and when you want the fuel delivered and how you’re operating the business. We could also give some feedback on that.
Also, there is no standard delivery service at the moment, though we are converging on some things that work. This means we need to do some analysis to ensure that we can provide something people want to buy at prices that work for their respective business models. The best thing is to reach out to us, and we can run some modeling and engage in that discussion.
Q3. How do you deal with mitigating debris risk to your depot?
Daniel: There are different layers to mitigating the debris risk to our depot. One is a micrometeoroid and all the debris shielding.
The second part is to ensure that we comply with all the guidelines or exceed all the guidelines for removing any tankers that we have in orbit. For example, if we have an empty depot, we can remove that from orbit.
Additionally, we’re looking at placing insurance policies with active debris removal suppliers. If we have a failure of any spacecraft, then they can remove that object from orbit for us.
We conduct our operations in zones that are considered relatively safe. We can minimize the consequence of failure. We operate as low as possible in low Earth orbit so that if there are any issues, orbital rescue can be done rapidly.
We also operate above the geostationary belt, which is the graveyard orbit again; that’s where spacecraft are placed out of harm’s way when they end their life. So, by doing operations in those zones, we minimize any risks.
Q4. Will there be a universal standard docking system/solution to enable in-space services in the upcoming 5-10 years?
Daniel: There’s already a standard for the international space station that’s big enough for astronauts to pass through between modules. That exists as a standard published by various space agencies collaborating on the refueling interfaces.
We haven’t yet had enough experience to say that we’ve marveled at the designs. You don’t want to standardize on something that won’t work. It’s a few years before we’d be ready as an industry to do that.
Q5. In your perspective, how will in-orbit refueling services impact the upcoming commercial space station industry? Also, will it be a part of a space station in the future?
Daniel: Yes, Orbit Fab’s ambition is not limited to launching, delivering, and storing fuel. We intend to become an industrial chemical supply company. So, give us 10 to 20 years. We want to take material from asteroids or the moon that other people are extracting and processing into the air, water, propellant, and of course, 3D printer feedstock.
Our payloads and our fuel are much more risk-tolerant. We manage an inventory in orbit; we can handle delays and a small number of failures. So, we’re able to take much cheaper launch vehicles and the opportunities to get large amounts of fuel cost-effectively in orbit, which means that then we can deliver consumables, fuel, water, etc., to a space station cheaper by the kilogram than any existing supplier.
Q6. What are satellite and deep space mission operators saying about the potential of leveraging Orbit Fab’s refueling capability?
Daniel: Yes, we see a lot of interest in Orbit Fab’s refueling capability, and the ability to move capital expenditure to operational expenditure makes a massive difference to the financing of these projects.
With satellites and refueling and serviceability, it’s the same thing. You’re heading to oblivion if this is not on your road map. Because trust me, your competitors are looking at it, building it into the business models, and figuring out how they can increase profitability and outcompete you on price.
Q7. Will OrbitFab comply with the open-source standards for in-orbit docking established by Lockheed Martin?
Answer: Lockheed Martin has the Augmentation System Port Interface (ASPIN), which has mechanical power and data connections. If you look at the center of the design, you will locate an area that perfectly fits our fueling port.
Lockheed Martin is a strategic investor in Orbit Fab, and Northrop Grumman is also a strategic investor. Northrop also has a docking interface that can incorporate a raft to provide refueling. So, they are building a raft into all those interfaces and working with all the players across the industry. That’s a big part of our strategy, which is to ensure that everybody’s got access to a refueling port and that it’s the most reliable and fit-for-purpose fuel import we can make.
Watch the complete webinar here.