Astroscale & U.S. Space Force to co-invest in a refueling satellite

Astroscale U.S., a company specializing in space sustainability technologies, has entered into an agreement with the U.S. Space Force to co-invest in an on-orbit refueling vehicle. Here are the key details of this agreement:

  1. Partnership with U.S. Space Force: Astroscale U.S. has collaborated with the U.S. Space Force on an initiative to develop an on-orbit refueling vehicle for satellites.
  2. Funding: The agreement includes $25.5 million in government funding provided by the U.S. Space Force and approximately $12 million contributed by Astroscale. This combined funding will support the development of the on-orbit refueling vehicle.
  3. Prototype Delivery: Astroscale is tasked with delivering a “manifest-ready” prototype vehicle within 24 months. This prototype will be designed to refuel satellites in orbit.
  4. Space Mobility and Logistics: The initiative is overseen by Col. Joyce Bulson, project manager at Space Systems Command, which is based at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. This office is responsible for managing space mobility and logistics programs.
  5. Astroscale’s Focus: Astroscale specializes in space sustainability technologies, including debris removal and on-orbit satellite servicing. The company is headquartered in Japan, with its U.S. subsidiary based in Colorado.
  6. OTA Contract: Astroscale was awarded an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) contract. OTAs provide the government with flexibility in negotiating contracts and sharing the cost of projects with industry partners.

This collaboration reflects ongoing efforts to enhance space sustainability and extend the operational life of satellites through on-orbit servicing and refueling capabilities.

The contract awarded to Astroscale for the development of an on-orbit refueling vehicle was funded by a $30 million congressional earmark added to the Space Force’s 2023 budget. Here are additional details:

  1. Earmark Funding: The $25.5 million contract received by Astroscale was made possible through a congressional earmark. Earmarks are specific allocations of funds by Congress for particular projects or purposes.
  2. Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC): Astroscale’s bid for this project was one of 23 submissions received through the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC). SpEC is an organization established to attract startups and commercial companies to compete for defense programs related to space.
  3. Leveraging Commercial Innovations: The U.S. Space Force is actively seeking to leverage commercial innovations in space services. The collaboration with Astroscale represents an effort to tap into emerging technologies and capabilities offered by the commercial space sector.
  4. APS-R and RAFTI: Astroscale’s vehicle for on-orbit refueling will be designated as APS-R, which stands for Astroscale Prototype Servicer for Refueling. It will utilize a refueling port known as RAFTI, which stands for rapidly attachable fluid transfer interface, developed by Orbit Fab. RAFTI is one of the commercial interfaces entering the market for in-space refueling.
  5. Commercial Interfaces: The Space Force is aiming to minimize military-unique requirements and encourage industry to demonstrate the possibilities of on-orbit refueling. Astroscale’s prototype refueling vehicle will be based on a commercial design, aligning with efforts to adopt and adapt commercial technologies for military applications.

This initiative reflects the Space Force’s goal of advancing space sustainability and logistics through partnerships with innovative commercial space companies.

The deployment of Astroscale’s vehicle to orbit for an in-space demonstration has not been determined at this time. However, it’s possible that a potential client satellite for such a demonstration could be one of the Tetra-5 small satellites scheduled for launch in 2025. These satellites are part of an on-orbit refueling experiment funded by the Space Force and the Defense Innovation Unit and are equipped with the RAFTI port.

Regarding refueling port standards, the Space Force has not finalized a specific standard as the industry is still evolving in this regard. The intent is to keep options open to encourage competition and explore emerging concepts in the market. The goal is to bridge the gap between what commercial companies can currently provide and the requirements of military users.

While space logistics projects are currently funded through congressional add-ons, the Space Force plans to advocate for long-term funding starting in the 2026 budget cycle. This approach aims to provide more stability and planning certainty for space logistics initiatives. In the event that additional funding is added to the 2024 budget, promising projects that were set aside by the SpEC consortium may be considered, as source selection has already been completed for these projects. This allows for rapid contract award and implementation if additional funds become available.