The Paradigm Shift in Space Development Planned by Orbit Fab Known for “Space Gas Stations” [Consider the Future of Earth Together with Serika Ito #16]
Even though we call it “Space Development”, there are various purposes, technologies, and missions. In this series, we consider the current situation and the future of space development together with our Chief Dream Officer (CDO), Serika Ito.
The theme of this 16th article is the creation of a space economic zone. We welcomed Daniel Faber, founder, and CEO of Orbit Fab, an American startup that plans to provide a “space gas station” service to refuel satellites in orbit and asked him about the background of the startup and its prospects.
Reversing the conventional wisdom of satellite operation that the remaining fuel = service lifetime.
Serika: Hi Daniel-san, nice to meet you! Orbit Fab has been in the news and talked about a lot in Japan.
Daniel: Yes, it seems so. My aunt lives in Kyoto, so whenever I find web news written in Japanese about our company, I always try to share it with her (laughs).
Serika: I think many people are surprised when they know about the “space gas station” concept. How did you start Orbit Fab?
Daniel: The business idea for Orbit Fab came from “Deep Space Industries”, a startup that had the audacious goal of mining resources on an asteroid.
I took over as CEO of Deep Space Industries from the founder, and our strategy was to develop a propulsion system to operate satellites in orbit. Because of that, we wanted to sell the propulsion we developed to satellite companies so that in the future they could run on propellant made from resources mined from asteroids. As a result, Deep Space Industries succeeded in developing a propulsion system and sold it to a European propulsion manufacturer.
As we continued to think about our idea, we heard from several potential customers that the most costly part (of operating a satellite) is having to abandon the satellite when it runs out of fuel.
If we could add an extra kilogram of fuel, we could make a million dollars. I realized how big that number is and how wasteful it is to have to abandon a satellite when it runs out of fuel.
Of course, many new technologies need to be developed. But we realized if it would be really valued, let’s make a business. And that’s why we founded Orbit Fab in 2018. 5 to 10 years from now, we hope to be producing fuel using resources mined from the moon and asteroids, as we envisioned at Deep Space Industries.
Reducing risk by refueling in orbit
Serika: So Orbit Fab’s business idea came from Deep Space Industries! What is the size of the market for the satellite refueling business?
Daniel: Currently, more than 120 companies and organizations around the world operate satellites. And the annual launch transportation cost of a satellite is about $5 billion. The launch transportation cost is determined by the weight of the airframe, and it is generally said that the weight of a satellite is half the weight of the hardware and half the weight of the fuel. So satellite companies around the world pay about $2.5 billion per year to launch fuel into orbit.
Once fuel is available in orbit, everyone will be using them. The life of a conventional satellite …… means that the satellite can be operated without being limited by the amount of fuel remaining. I think the market will grow to more than $10 billion in the next 10 years.
Serika: In the future, you plan to use resources mined on the moon and asteroids, but until then, the service provider, Orbit Fab, will also need to transport fuel from the ground to orbit. What advantages do you see for this?
Daniel: To launch a satellite, you have to pay the high cost of launch transportation before it is profitable. But if you can refuel in orbit, you can launch with only enough fuel for this year or next year and then pay to refuel when you need it, so you don’t have to take out a loan and pay interest for expensive launch transportation.
If the satellite does not work due to a malfunction or if the market changes and the required functions of the satellite change, the investment will not be lost if less fuel is carried at launch on the assumption that the satellite will be refueled in orbit. Furthermore, we may be able to downsize the fuel tanks and control systems so that telescopes and observation equipment can be mounted in the space available.
Serika: I see. If it comes to fruition, that could lead to business support for space startups!
Daniel: Yes, Orbit Fab’s vision is to expand the economic sphere of space. To that end, in addition to refueling satellites in orbit, in the future, we intend to supply propellants for spacecraft to travel farther, as well as compounds necessary for people to live in space.
The future of the earth as imagined in Tasmania
Serika: By the way, Daniel, why do you think humanity needs to go to space?
Daniel: Before I talk about my thoughts, I want to tell you that I grew up on a farm in Tasmania, Australia.
Serika: Oh, that is the island known for the best air and water in the world! I would love to visit there someday.
Daniel:The natural beauty of Tasmania is pretty amazing, and it is the site of the first successful environmental protest campaign in the world, protecting the Franklin River. As a child, I great up on a small farm in Tasmania. I wasn’t cut out for farm work and my daydreaming usually alternated between automating the farm, going to space and saving the environment. When I attended the University in Sydney, I started thinking about how I could do something to benefit humanity. And what I came to realize is that we humans are dependent on the environment on Earth and that we should strive to sustain it and that we should migrate humans to interplanetary locations. If we could make sure that industry and power generation functions were performed off Earth, we might be able to return the entire planet to its natural splendor, like national parks.
Furthermore, because of satellite observations of the Earth, we can now monitor the effects of global warming and clarify how human activities are affecting the environment. I think that by promoting space exploration, we can advance both human space migration and monitoring the effects of environmental pollution.
Serika: That’s a wonderful idea. Now I understand why you are so passionate about Orbit Fab! By the way, how would your business benefit our daily life on earth?
Daniel: This could lead to the development of technology that would allow us to make things that could not be made on earth. For example, 150 years ago technology revealed that if you create a vacuum between the inner and outer jars of a double-layered metal bottle, you can keep it hot and cold. Initially, no one came up with the idea of what it could be used for. However, over the next 50 to 100 years, many products were created that utilized vacuum technology, such as vacuum bottles and “vacuum chilled” refrigerators.
In the same way, if we come to produce chemicals in orbit, we may be able to invent new technologies. And the day may come when that technology can be applied to manufacturing on the ground.
Now is the perfect time to take on the space industry!
Serika: Orbit Fab was the first private company to supply water to the International Space Station (ISS), wasn’t it?
Daniel: Yes, when we founded Orbit Fab in 2018 and were looking at market analysis and all the normal things you need to do as a startup company, we realized that we had some major technical challenges and major cognitive challenges.
One of them was that we needed to create a paradigm shift to get people who think that satellites are meant to be used up to be thrown away but that you can keep using them by refueling them. So we decided to show people that refueling was realistic by conducting a demonstration similar to the transfer of fuel from our satellite to a customer’s satellite in orbit.
The first thing we did was to develop and transfer water supply and storage tanks on the ISS that would resemble fuel. We contracted with the ISS National Lab in the U.S., which provided us with time for astronauts to work with our equipment and a launch slot to the ISS, which was in 2019.
Serika: You have started a business in 2018 and conducted a demonstration on the ISS in 2019. How quick it is! What are your plans for the future?
Daniel: First, we aim to create a market for hydrazine, which is used by many satellite operators, and then xenon, which we will supply to satellites in orbit. However, neither of these substances can be obtained on the asteroid or the moon, so we think we will move on to hydrogen peroxide, which we expect to be able to extract.
Serika: You announced that you have signed a contract with Japanese startup Astroscale to refuel LEXI an “extended-life satellite” that they plan to launch. LEXI will perform life extension services for commercial operators, the US government and partner governments around the world. The key services include station keeping and attitude control, momentum management, inclination correction and retirement to graveyard orbit. Lastly, any last message for our readers?
Daniel: The space industry is changing rapidly with private funding. It must be a very exciting time for those involved in space development. Resources and talents are required in space development, not only engineers, but also marketing, business, finance, and so on. Many companies are involved in many different things, and the convergence of technologies is stimulating the economic sphere of space.
I would say that now is a great time to look at the space industry as an investment, as an opportunity for career advancement, and as a place for innovation. And of course, the space industry is also important from a sustainability perspective. Thank you very much!
Serika: Thank you very much!
In our next interview, we will hear from Derek Harris, Business Operations Manager at Skyrora, a British venture that develops small rockets, about trends in the transportation business and the development of environmentally friendly fuels. Stay tuned!