PARIS — Satellite in-orbit refueling startup Orbit Fab raised $3 million in Seed round funding from Type 1 Ventures, a new VC, which Orbit Fab said is enough to cover the construction and launch of its first demonstration mission in 2020.
Orbit Fab Co-Founder and Chief Executive Daniel Faber, a former chief executive of Deep Space Industries, said the company estimates it will need $20 million in capital to reach cash-flow break-even and already has contracts to deliver 10 fueling ports to customers this year.
Orbit Fab’s goal is to launch small fuel canisters that can visit satellites, refuel them and then separate.
The company conducted a proof-of-concept demonstration at the International Space Station (ISS) using funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which operates the ISS National Lab. The demonstration delivered water instead of fuel to the ISS.
Orbit Fab has designed a fueling port that can be used by other companies now designing their own satellite servicing missions, but its goal is to fly canisters with the same dimensions as the ISS-demonstrated mission but with solar arrays and avionics added.
These small fuel reserves then would directly service satellites that had integrated the Orbit Fab fueling port into their designs.
Addressing the Tech Crunch Disrupt SF conference on Oct. 3, Faber said the satellite industry is looking for a common standard to use to facilitate future in-orbit servicing. He said Orbit Fab is working with 20 companies to develop such a standard. Orbit Fab said is partners and collaborators include Lockheed Martin, Japan’s IHI, the U.S. Air Force, NASA and Benchmark Space Systems.
The commercial satellite industry is divided on the near-term value of refueling. Commercial telecommunications satellites in geosynchronous orbit today typically operate for at least 15 years. Operators are wary of extending that life given the advances in satellite technology that will have made their orbital infrastructures obsolete.
Second, the commercial satellite sector is moving toward electric propulsion, which does not carry the risk of having an otherwise well-functioning, revenue-generating satellite run out of fuel.
Northrop Grumman’s Space Logistics LLC will be the first attempt to extend the life of an in-orbit satellite when it launches aboard an International Launch Services Proton rocket. The launch is scheduled for Oct. 9.
Space Logistics’ Mission Extension Vehicle-1 will dock with an aging Intelsat satellite and stay attached for several years, extending the satellite’s life, and then moving to another Intelsat satellite.
Faber said the 2020 demonstration of an in-orbit fueling system should be enough to unlock commercial support for the business. He said satellite operators “can save 50% on their capital expenditure and we take him gross margins of 90%.”
It was not immediately clear how to interpret those numbers. A mid-size telecommunications satellite will cost at least $175 million to build and launch, if not more. Depending on what Orbit Fab charges customers, and how many years’ life extension is provided, the savings for a satellite operator should be more than 50%.
Faber said the company needed about $20 million to reach cash-flow break-even.