Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Space Force plans deep-dive study on pros and cons of orbital refueling

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun1,2024

WASHINGTON — Recent comments by the Space Force’s top general would suggest the military is growing skeptical of the benefits of in-orbit satellite refueling services offered by the commercial industry. But a senior official said May 17 the military remains very interested in satellite refueling, particularly for high-value geostationary satellites that could gain strategic advantages through increased mobility and longevity.

Still, a lot of rigorous analysis has to be completed before committing investments, said Col. Rich Kniseley, head of the Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office.

“There’s going to be a lot of analysis that goes into it,” he said at a Washington Space Business Roundtable meeting.

Remarks by Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman at a congressional hearing last month have fueled a narrative that the service is unconvinced of the cost-benefit merits of satellite refueling in orbit. Saltzman told the House Appropriations Committee that the Space Force’s plan to migrate toward cheaper satellites in low Earth orbit makes the argument for refueling less compelling.

Kniseley said the military sees the utility of refueling technologies for the most expensive geostationary satellites. But he said more data is needed about the state of the commercial sector and whether there is sufficient demand across the board to sustain a market. 

‘Mobility and logistics’ sector still nascent

The sector of the industry known as “space access, mobility and logistics” is still in its infancy, said Kniseley. A key consideration for the Space Force is ensuring the nascent industry can establish a sustainable business model and survive long term without being propped up by government funding or subsidies.

It’s clear that having options to refuel satellites “allows us to utilize our systems longer, make more passes … and it also allows us to delay fielding of a replacement unit and reallocate that budget,” Kniseley said.

Saltzman was asked at a hearing April 30 about the service’s $20 million budget over five years for satellite refueling and servicing. He said the money is for studies to assess the utility of refueling. “We want to make sure that our science and technology budget goes as far as we possibly can. And we want to make sure if we’re going to pursue technology, there’s a pathway to fielding an operational capability.”

Another important issue, he added, is that the Space Force is “trying to shift from large satellites in geosynchronous orbit, whose lifespan requires them to have a lot of fuel where refueling could be valuable, to a proliferated low Earth orbit set of constellations, with hundreds of satellites much smaller and more easily to replace.”

Refueling would not be needed for LEO systems that are frequently replenished, Saltzman said. “So we’re trying to get the balance just right and make sure that all the dollars that we invest would be properly utilized.”

Kniseley said he expects the Space Force to leverage commercial refueling services “but we’re still running models and simulations, and we’re utilizing the limited budget that we have right now to do the analysis.”

Industry services aimed at GEO

Executives from the space refueling company Orbit Fab said the projected migration to LEO satellites does not undermine the value of in-space refueling because the industry is targeting the geostationary portion of the space architecture. 

Orbit Fab is one of several companies in the emerging commercial satellite-servicing sector. Others include Astroscale, Starfish Space and Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics.

Shawn Hendricks, chief operating officer of Orbit Fab, noted that the Space Force plans to acquire next-generation geostationary satellites over the next decade and so there is potentially billions of dollars in cost avoidance by extending the lives of these spacecraft through refueling.

In an interview, Hendricks drew a contrast between Saltzman’s recent statements and comments by other officials advocating for satellite refueling.

He pointed to remarks by retired Lt. Gen. John Shaw, formerly the deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, about the strategic value of satellites able to refuel and reposition without draining limited fuel supplies.

Shaw while on active duty argued that refuelable spacecraft give military operators more flexibility to maneuver defensively and offensively without fear of running out of propellant. For intelligence-gathering satellites, that mobility could enable closing distances to better monitor objects of interest.

“In this new age of warfare we need logistics capabilities and maneuver capabilities so that we can keep our adversaries on their toes just as they try to keep us on our toes,” said Hendricks. Given what seems to be solid support in the Space Force for the idea of refueling satellites in orbit,  he said, Saltzman’s comments “caught me somewhat by surprise.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “Space Force plans deep-dive study on pros and cons of orbital refueling”
  1. As a space enthusiast, I believe that in-orbit satellite refueling could revolutionize our capabilities in space exploration. The potential strategic advantages for high-value geostationary satellites are immense, and the military should carefully evaluate the benefits it can bring. Exciting times ahead for space technology!

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