20 Sep 2023
by Manny Shar

In-orbit Refuelling: Propelling Humanity’s Future in Space

Guest blog from Manny Shar, Managing Director at Orbit Fab. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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The last half-century has witnessed unprecedented growth in our understanding of space, both as a frontier and a domain of endless opportunities. Yet, as with any frontier, there are challenges and barriers that must be overcome. One such challenge is the current limitation of space vehicle endurance and mobility. The solution? In-space refuelling.

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Why is In-Space Refuelling a Game-Changer?

1. Enable New Missions: Mobility is fundamental to satellite servicing in all its forms: inspection, active debris removal, orbital transfer vehicles, assembly, manufacturing, life extension, recycling, robotic repair. New operating modes and business models such as VLEO and sustained low-lunar orbits. As with any new platform capability, the most exciting business models and use cases are the ones that no entrepreneur or engineer has imagined yet.

2. Extended Mission Lifespan: The most obvious benefit of refuelling is the ability to extend mission duration. Spacecraft, whether satellites, crewed missions, or probes, are constrained by their fuel capacity. Once fuel is expended, the mission ends, or the satellite becomes space debris. Refuelling allows these assets to extend their operational life, making missions more flexible and cost-effective.

3. Increased Payload Capabilities: Currently, spacecraft must carry all the fuel they will ever use from the moment they launch. With refuelling, spacecraft can instead be designed for increased payload capacity and more capable scientific instruments, thereby fundamentally increasing their value-generating potential.

4. Enhanced Exploration Opportunities: In-space refuelling can be a boon for deep space exploration. As we set our sights on destinations like Mars and beyond, the capability to refuel vehicles on their journey becomes a strategic advantage, reducing the need for excessively large and heavy launch vehicles. SpaceX’s Starship, for example, is being designed with refuelling from the outset with multiple refuellings envisioned to enable Artemis crewed lunar landings.

5. Ensuring Space Sustainability and Debris Mitigation: Instead of decommissioning satellites when they run out of fuel and potentially contributing to the growing space debris problem, satellites can be refuelled and maintained, reducing waste. This is not only an economic advantage but also a major step toward space sustainability. Where satellites do become debris, the costs to remove multiple debris objects can be reduced by up to 80% by incorporating refuelling to amortise costs over multiple missions.

6. Maximising Economic Viability: As the in-space refuelling infrastructure grows, a new industry will emerge. Just as petrol stations became a staple for cars, so too will refuelling stations in space. This offers new economic opportunities, from fuel production and transport to the establishment and maintenance of refuelling stations across strategic orbits.

A Call to Action: Supporting Space Sustainability

While the potential benefits of in-space refuelling are apparent, realizing them demands innovation, investment, and, importantly, collaboration across sectors. The public and private sectors, researchers, policymakers, and even the general public all have roles to play.

- Investment in R&D: Governments and private enterprises must channel resources into researching and developing the technology necessary for safe and efficient in-space refuelling. Technical de-risking is key to enabling a vibrant in space economy. Continuing the UK ADR programme with a follow-on refuelling mission would be a natural next step and cement UK leadership in this domain.

- Policy Frameworks: Space-faring nations should collaborate to develop regulatory frameworks to oversee this emerging industry and incentivise good behaviour, ensuring safety, equity, and sustainability. The UK should build on the recent momentum of the Artemis Accords and the Astra Carta Charter to pave the way for strong frameworks for ensuring space sustainability, working closely with the international community.

- Public Engagement: As stewards of our planet and its immediate space environment, the public should be informed and engaged. They can support policies that drive forward these technologies and advocate for sustainable practices in space. The UK Space Agency should fully implement one of its key pillars of ‘championing space’ and develop novel campaigns for raising awareness of the crucial role space plays in society today, working with the Satellite Applications Catapult, DSIT, industry, and academia.

- Collaboration: Space agencies, private companies, and international bodies need to collaborate on standards, safety protocols, and joint missions to ensure the industry’s smooth growth. Consolidate the many current channels and entry points into the UK Space sector through a central gateway that brings together UK funded programmes (for both national and ESA) and activities into one location so new entrants have a clearer understanding of funding routes and opportunities.

In-space refuelling is not just a novel concept; it’s a pivotal component of our future in space. It represents a shift from short-lived, one-off missions to a sustainable, enduring presence in space. Companies like Orbit Fab are leading the way in making this a viable technology having conducted multiple demo missions and supported by the UK Space Agency through technology de-risking projects, including as part of the UK Active Debris Removal and Enabling Technologies Programmes.

Just as Tesla transformed electric mobility, and Uber disrupted transportation – Orbit Fab is fundamentally reshaping how we approach space operations and exploration. In-space refuelling is opening an era where distance and duration in space are no longer constraints. By supporting the development and adoption of these technologies, we're not just investing in space but in a sustainable and interconnected future above and beyond our planet.

Let's embark on this journey together, ensuring that as we reach for the stars, we do so responsibly, sustainably, and inclusively.

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Manny Shar

Manny Shar

Managing Diector , Orbit Fab