Startup OrbitFab is working to make orbital refueling a reality and the firm has secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early stage, deep tech, R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further the company's goals.
The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible last October at Disrupt, which it now refers to as its Rapidly attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI).
The RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling, and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).
Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS) — last year, the firm became the first ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. OrbitFab is not resting on its laurels and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process it’s RAFTI facilitates in their own test facilities this summer.
Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel said should happen within two years. He noted this will involve two satellites, the company's tanker and a customer satellite in a low LEO docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and then repeating this process as many times as is possible to demonstrate the company's capabilities.
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