On the lunar lander mission of SpaceX Falcon 9 scheduled for late 2022 or even early 2023, Orbit Fab, a startup that provides space refueling, will deploy a propellant tanker to the geostationary orbit. “Most of our customers, particularly the intelligence community and the Department of Defense, are interested in geostationary orbit,” Orbit Fab Chief Executive Officer Daniel Faber informed SpaceNews.
The tanker will accompany Intuitive Machines’ NASA-supported IM-2 lunar lander mission as a supplementary payload. The payload will be delivered to geostationary orbit by the Spaceflight Sherpa-ES orbital transfer vehicle, which will follow a new “lunar flyby” trajectory that takes it around the back of the moon first, according to Faber. Spaceflight and GeoJump, which is a new startup that provides small satellite ride-sharing services to a geostationary belt, aided the project. “Starting operations in the orbit will be a significant milestone for us,” said Faber.
According to him, the tanker will store the propellant for approximately 15 years. Orbit Fab launched the first fuel payload to the low sun-synchronous orbit in June. “It’s just demonstrating that the fueling port is maintaining pressure and running properly and that it’s available to customers who require high test peroxide,” Faber explained.
Over the next few years, he claimed, “fuel shuttles” will be launched into orbit. “Our design includes fuel shuttles and large fuel tankers to transport fuel between the tanks and operating spacecraft.” Orbital propellant depots are an important part of the space infrastructure required for economic and exploration purposes.
The first tanker launched by Orbit Fab and now in the low Earth orbit weighs less than 100 pounds. The geostationary orbit tanker, according to Faber, will be bigger and carry over 200 pounds of hydrazine. Customers have requested it, according to Faber. “We already have contracts worth several million dollars from the Space Force and the Air Force, which are paying flight qualification of the fueling ports [as well as efforts to deliver] both xenon and hydrazine.”
As soon as the hydrazine fuel arrives in the geo belt, it will be ready for delivery, but the corporation will need further time to establish long-term storage capability. “When our tanker isn’t delivering fuel, we’ll park it several hundred kilometers away from the geostationary belt, so it doesn’t clog up the orbit,” Orbit Fab’s chief engineer James Bultitude explained.
Orbit Fab is funding the tanker mission with Spaceflight, according to Faber. “In a geostationary orbit, we will provide propellant for sale and delivery.” Orbit Fab created RAFTI (Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface), an in-space refueling port that is being given to the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and commercial satellites. Orbit Fab, which was founded in 2018, is situated in California but has lately announced plans to relocate to Colorado. It is backed by venture capital and has received funding from defense firms Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.