The U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command (SSC) wants to help define standards for future on-orbit refueling and repair of satellites–two areas that the White House National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) touched upon this month in NSTC’s In-Space Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing [ISAM] National Strategy.
“Recent commercial operations have extended the lifespan of satellites that are low on fuel,” the strategy said. “The United States will build on this foundation to accelerate a new, diverse, and market-focused ecosystem of autonomous persistent platforms and assets, to improve the way we use space for in-space and terrestrial operations.”
The four-year-old San Francisco-based startup, Orbit Fab, has demonstrated technologies for on-orbit refueling and tested a prototype refueler, carrying water, on the International Space Station in 2019. One of Orbit Fab’s co-founders, Jeremy Schiel, has been the vice chairman and the treasurer of the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), which is to help develop satellite refueling and on-orbit servicing stanards.
Lockheed Martin [LMT] has been working with Orbit Fab to develop end-to-end refueling using Orbit Fab’s Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI) fueling port (Defense Daily, Apr. 5).
The Life Extension In-orbit (LEXI) servicer by the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s Astroscale Holdings Inc. is to be the first spacecraft to be refueled through the RAFTI interface. The first LEXI is to launch to geostationary orbit in 2026, and each servicer would receive up to 2,200 pounds of Xenon propellant; LEXI is the first satellite designed to be refueled.
Last October, Orbit Fab signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) space vehicle directorate and AFRL’s spacecraft technology division to advance on-orbit refueling technology.
SSC is considering on-orbit refueling and servicing as a way of extending satellite life and reducing the demand for new satellites and the costs associated with building them.
On-orbit maneuver and refueling is “unproven yet, but it’s pretty clear we’re headed in that direction,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, SSC’s program executive officer of assured access to space, told reporters last week at Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
Claire Leon, the director of space systems integration at SSC, would help ensure that programs adhere to any on-orbit refueling and servicing requirements.
“Part of the first step is getting to the standards that can be utilized so that we do have the ability to plug in a refueler to satellites and how we then design into the overall system going forward,” Brig. Gen. Tim Sejba, SSC’s program executive officer of battle management command, control, and communications and space domain awareness and combat power, told reporters last week at the Space Symposium.
“The first step is really to do some early prototyping, and I think that’s probably what you’re seeing in some of the spec [specification] work that’s already coming out and being awarded.”
Leon, a former Boeing executive, directed the Department of the Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, renamed the National Security Space Launch program on March 1, 2019.
Leon retired from Boeing as the vice president of national programs in 2013 after a dozen years at the company where she managed the company’s Wideband Global SATCOM effort, the Transformational Satellite Communications System, the Global Positioning System IIF satellite, and classified programs.
Purdy said that the standards for on-orbit refueling and servicing are “critical” for future systems.
“The hope would be that our government standards would be the same as the commercial standards,” he said. “In addition to prototyping, we know that commercial industry is working their own on-orbit maneuver and on-orbit refuel activities. We’re talking with those industry partners to understand what they’re doing to talk about how that would interface with our business plans and then going back and feeding that into our architecture, talking internally within our SPOs (system project offices), our PEOs and then going back to the [Space Force] SWAC (Space Warfighting Analysis Center), which owns the overall architecture through the different systems, to understand how that plays.”