San Francisco-based startup Orbit Fab wants to be the go-to source for orbital refueling, and now it has raised over $10 million in its quest to get there. The money will go toward funding a refueling trial that’s due to launch as early as the end of 2022, in which the company plans to send to space two refueling shuttles that will repeatedly perform a three-step dock, transfer fuel and undock process.
The round was led by Asymmetry Ventures, with participation from existing investor SpaceFund and new investors Marubeni Ventures and Audacious Venture Partners. Notably, both Northrop Grumman Corporation and Lockheed Martin Ventures also participated, the first time the two contractor-rivals have done an investment together, Orbit Fab co-founder Jeremy Schiel told TechCrunch.
“We are the tide that raises all boats,” Schiel said. “We don't give either a competitive edge, but we can as a whole have better alternatives for sustainability in space.”
“Getting [the two primes] to play nice with each other,” as he put it, is key for the company, which wants to position itself as the favored source for space refueling. Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, has developed a refueling valve it calls RAFTI (Rapid Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface) -- but this component must be installed before spacecraft leave Earth, which means that much of the buy-in from major customers like the aerospace contractors must occur before their satellites even enter orbit.
The idea is that spacecraft outfitted with RAFTI would be able to dock with one of Orbit Fab’s refueling shuttles, which would be positioned in low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and eventually even cis-lunar space. By 2025, Schiel said he hopes every spacecraft will have a RAFTI on it. In the long-term, the company is thinking even bigger: producing fuel in-space, using material mined from asteroids.
“We want to be the Dow Chemical of space,” Schiel said. “We want to be the first customers for lunar miners, asteroid miners, buying up their material that they mined off those bodies, and then convert that to usable propellants that we can produce in-orbit.”
Orbit Fab says orbital refueling will be the bedrock of the burgeoning new space economy, in which goods and spacecraft will need to be transferred from one orbit to another (a maneuver that’s extremely fuel-intensive), or to build out supply chains to return resources to Earth.
“We want to be that supply chain of propellant,” Schiel added.