Humans may not have totally mastered getting objects to space, but we’ve done a pretty good job so far. The hundreds of satellites that orbit the Earth are proof enough that “send stuff to space” is firmly in humanity’s capacity. But what about refueling, repairing or even adding capabilities to spacecraft or satellites once they’re up there?
In the past few years, a host of companies have started to turn what has long been seen as a pipe dream into a real possibility. Now, satellite servicing company Starfish Space and space mobility provider Benchmark Space Systems will be entering into a new partnership aimed at advancing these much-needed capabilities — and their first demonstration will take place next month, on space startup Orbit Fab’s Tanker 1 mission.
Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, will be sending up an operational fuel depot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June. The tanker is the first of what Orbit Fab is envisioning as a “gas station in space” — in-orbit propellant available to satellite customers that will no longer be limited in terms of their spacecraft’s active life by the amount of fuel they take up on launch.
Benchmark Space Systems and Orbit Fab already have an agreement to combine Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system and the fuel depot startup’s fluid transfer interface (imagine a refueling apparatus) into an integrated propulsion package.
This is where Starfish Space comes in. It will be testing its CEPHALOPOD rendezvous proximity operations and docking (RPOD) software with Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system to make sure that the refueling demonstration is as accurate as possible. The RPOD software is entirely autonomous and can give small servicing vehicles up to eight times more maneuvering capability, the company says.
Demonstration missions like the one in June are just the beginning. Refueling capacity could not only extend the mission length of satellites and other spacecraft, it could help open the door to new types of space missions and the emerging space economy.