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'Gas Stations' in Space Could Save Thousands of Satellites from Becoming Trash

And with 100,000 satellites on the way, we're going to need them.

San-Francisco-based startup Orbit Fab is aiming to build a network of orbital "gas stations" for satellites thanks in part to a recently announced investment from Lockheed Martin, a press release reveals.

The firm's flagship product is the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI), a fueling port that allows orbital satellites to be refueled. According to Orbit Fab's website, the company was founded to create "a thriving in-space market for products and services that support both existing space businesses (communications and Earth observation) and new industries like space tourism, manufacturing, and mining." 

With the RAFTI system, the life expectancy of spacecraft will be extended by the ability to refuel while in orbit. The system is able to accommodate a flow rate of 0.264 gallons (1 liter) per minute. It is designed to operate at temperatures of -40 to 248 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 to 120 degrees Celsius) and pressures of 500 to 3,000 psi. It can refuel satellites with propellants ranging from LOX/H2, nitrogen, helium, water, and alcohol.

Extending the lifespan of orbital satellites

The RAFTI system was flight-qualified over the summer after it was launched into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 30. Speaking on the topic of Lockheed Martin's recent investment in Orbit Fab, Paul Pelley, a director at Lockheed Marting said, "this investment in Orbit Fab is one of several we have made that have created and supported innovative technologies and capabilities for on-orbit flexibility. The ability to refuel a satellite on orbit is a critical component for our customers' missions because it allows them greater maneuverability and can extend the life of a mission with replenished fuel."

Orbit Fab and Lockheed Martin's research and investment are part of a wider effort to develop technologies to tackle the issue of orbital space debris. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that more than 100,000 satellites will be in orbit by the end of the decade. While this will greatly enhance our telecommunications, surveillance, and weather analysis capabilities on Earth, increasing the lifespan of these satellites is key to reducing the unsustainable problem of space debris. Just last month a Chinese satellite collided with space debris from a Russian rocket launched in 1996, and the month before Elon Musk claimed that SpaceX's Starship rocket might provide a solution as it could be used to fly around Earth and "chomp up debris."

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