Deep Space Gas Stations Prepare for In-Space Market
One of our favorite things to do here at Altium is to support entrepreneurs and their innovative startup companies by equipping them with our PCB design tools. Orbit Fab is one such company. In this article, partners Daniel Faber and Jeremy Schiel share their vision for the future of space and the critical need for satellite fueling stations. With help from our partners at Bolt, a technology accelerator, Orbit Fab has developed a preliminary design that was launched with a SpaceX Dragon rocket in December 2018, and is now in place at the International Space Station. Read on to learn about their Furphy device and how fueling satellites will be a game changer in the next chapter of space technology.
Judy Warner: Tell us a little bit about your professional background and give us an overview of the Orbit Fab story.
Jeremy Schiel and Daniel Faber: As the former CEO of Deep Space Industries (DSI), Daniel Faber built a solid technology business, aggressively advancing a vision of delivering off-earth resources to the space economy. Under his leadership, the company released its first products with significant customer traction, grew sales from zero to nearly $10 million, changed global perceptions and regulations around space resources, and positioned DSI to systematically create and commercialize all the technology necessary for mining asteroids.
After Jeremy Schiel left the automotive industry, he began working on new business development at Deep Space Industries and Brand Delta-V. Mr. Schiel also sits on the executive committee of CONFERS, a DARPA funded consortium to help establish standards for satellite servicing. As an advocate for the Space Frontier Foundation, and as former Program Director of the Center for Space Commerce and Finance, Mr. Schiel is working to push the boundaries of the final frontier and contribute to the growth of the industry.
Orbit Fab envisions a bustling 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. By offering a ubiquitous supply of satellite propellant in Earth Orbit, we expand the operational potential of new and existing space assets and enable unprecedented business model flexibility for satellite owners. The future for satellites is no longer restricted to the fuel they are launched with. We provide the fuel that satellites need, where and when they need it, to achieve things never before thought possible.
Warner: What inspired you to start Orbit Fab initially, and why do we need fueling stations in space?
Schiel/Faber: Working at Deep Space Industries, we were worked through many mission concepts for asteroid prospecting and mining missions and all of them were severely limited by fuel. It is the largest pain point in designing deep space missions as well as satellite servicing and most of the commercial activity we would like to do in space. We started Orbit Fab to solve that problem.
Warner: You worked with the VC/engineering accelerator, Bolt to start your company? Why did you choose Bolt and what value have you realized by partnering with them?
Schiel/Faber: We chose Bolt because of their superb team and machining shop which allowed us to accelerate our company’s growth. Without the help from the Bolt team we would not have been able to complete our Furphy mission in the timeframe we did. Bolt has a coworking space for all of its portfolio companies that has everything you need to develop the business, host events, and build hardware. We look forward to continue working with Bolt as our company grows.
Warner: You recently launched your first experiment into space via a SpaceX Dragon rocket, bound for the International Space Station. Tell us about that process and experience.
Schiel/Faber: In June of 2018 we got a contract from the International Space Station National Lab (ISSNL) to test our rigid tank and flexible tank. One of our goals when we founded the company was to have a piece of hardware in orbit within a year. With the help of Bolt and our team the whole process from napkin to flight hardware handover took less than five months, and we launched on December 4th, 2018. There were many points when the whole team was in the shop bending metal and turning screws to get the hardware ready. We learned a lot about the NASA safety process and what is needed to send hardware to space on a rapid schedule.
Warner: What do you hope to learn from this experiment and what are your next steps?
Schiel/Faber: During this experiment we are testing the valves, tanks, pumps, and plumbing of our first-generation tanker. This experiment will give us the necessary information to improve the design for operational launches early next year. Once the test has finished, we will resupply the International Space Station with the water that we are testing with.
Warner: What type of PCBs are inside your product and what is their function in the overall system?
Schiel/Faber: Each tanker contains two system PCBs. One holds the Raspberry Pi Compute Module embedded computer that controls the tanker, along with power distribution circuitry and interfaces for the tanker’s sensors. The other PCB holds controllers for the pumps and valves within the tanker. The pushbuttons, LEDs, and 7-segment displays that make up the astronaut user interface are also located on the two PCBs.
Warner: What do you predict will happen in space over the next 10 years?
Schiel/Faber: We predict the following will occur over the next 10 years:
Space resources: The abundance of materials mined in space and delivered to Earth orbit will be significantly cheaper than the equivalent materials launched from the ground. This will start with propellant, polymers (for 3D printer feedstock) and base metals (iron and nickel). The potential applications are endless and will unleash a wave of industrialization in Earth orbit.
Low Earth Orbit mega-constellations: Thousands of satellites providing global internet, competing directly with fiber-to-the-home. Economies of scale are realized with manufacture of satellites in large quantities on automated production lines.
Satellite servicing: The ability to inspect, repair, refuel, and service satellites and to remove them from orbit when they are obsolete. This will provide flexibility to large satellites, allowing them to be upgraded with new technology and reconfigured to address changing demand.
Immortal satellites: With satellite servicing, large satellites will be built around a long structural truss with subsystems such as antennas, solar arrays and radiators being added, removed and upgraded with every change in technology, business model and market behavior. Satellites will gradually grow as new capabilities are continuously added.
3D printing: Rockets have inherent limitations in both the size of the payload and the extreme vibrations during launch. Manufacturing in space allows for larger, lighter structures.
Fuel depots: Facilities in low Earth orbit for distribution of propellant and other materials will allow launch vehicles to lift the largest possible payloads and then re-fuel to boost them to their operational orbit. The costs savings from this approach, compared to launching directly to operational orbits, can be up to an order of magnitude.
Lowering cost of launch: New launch vehicles may lower the cost of placing satellites in orbit by half over the next 3-5 years. This will lower the barrier to entry for many new companies who will be competing for the delivery of space derived products and services. The return of a human launch capability in the US, with possibly three operators in SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin, is expected to drive the cost down sufficiently to start a space tourism industry.
The convergence of these innovations will revolutionize the space industry, disrupting current business models and presenting unprecedented opportunities for new value creation.
Warner: It is an exciting time for innovation in space! How can our readers learn more about Orbit Fab and track your progress?
Readers can go to our website to see the latest news about us. We also post on our social media; LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Thank you both for sharing your time and vision of Orbit Fab, and best wishes on continued success.
Schiel/Faber: Thank you for the opportunity.