Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Another Team Joins the Effort to do On-Orbit Refueling

Back in 2019, as part of an announcement of 19 different public/private sector partnerships with 10 different companies, NASA announced that SpaceX and two NASA centers, the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, would work together on space-borne refueling systems.  On September 7th, Ship 26 which has long been speculated to be the first Starship that would become an on-orbit fuel depot, rolled to the test area in Boca Chica for testing (video).  The rumor is that Ship 26 will be the third orbital Starship test.  Given we're about to enter the 3rd quarter of this year, I have to conclude that the third orbital mission would most likely be No Earlier Than the second half of '24.    

Title screen from the video on NASASpaceflight - not the video itself.  That's ship 26 on the test pad, being readied for a set of tests that may end up including static firing.  No thermal tiles, no fins or aero surfaces?  It's never going to be reused, so why lift weight you don't need?

All of this to set up the story that two small companies are teaming up with the goal of demonstrating on-orbit refueling. 

Spaceium, a startup building in-orbit pit stops for interplanetary missions, is teaming up with The Exploration Company on a demo mission to refuel a spacecraft in orbit.

The two companies are betting on a future in-space servicing economy, and their missions and timelines mesh well.

Spaceium is working on the problems of refueling, charging, and debris storage, and designing a prototype with a modular architecture to launch next year.  The Exploration Company, often just called TEC, has designed a vehicle called Nyx, targeting a demo flight in 2024, designed to gas up between months-long trips around Earth or the Moon. 

The partnership: Spaceium and The Exploration Company announced this morning that they have signed a bilateral letter of intent to demonstrate cryogenic refueling using Nyx and the planned orbiting service station.

  • The station would be stocked with cryogenic bio-methane and oxygen.
  • The two companies have also agreed to use Nyx as a host for a servicing module in 2026.

TEC also announced Tuesday that it signed an agreement with Axiom Space to use Nyx to supply a cargo mission to Axiom's planned space station.  

No date is announced in the source article on Payload, but I think it would be optimistic to think this could be operating by 2025 and '26 may be more realistic.  Looking at a website, it can be hard to figure out what's real and what's a rendering or "artist's conception."  I'm not convinced there's actual hardware anywhere.



  1. Thought their web-site might be interesting, but... it's barely got any info and the 'refueling ship' looks to be about the size of Boeing's Starliner attached to a SpaceX Dragon-sized service module.

    So able to take, what, hundreds, maybe a thousand gallons of fuel up per launch?

    May be cool for refueling satellites, but actual transport ships?

    And who provides the first/second stages? They look like it's designed to be launched by ULA at ungodly expense or SpaceX from a Falcon 9. And they'll be ready about the time that Starship should have finished its trials and be in actual use.

    As to Starship, 26 depends on what happens with the launch of Ship25/Booster9. If that launch Mdoesn't damage the pad and OLM, and it makes it to orbit and back again, Ship 26 may be able to launch maybe as early as November or December.

    1. I was going by the rumor 26 is to be the third orbital flight, and assuming that meant after two successful orbital flights. It's a guess, for sure. If B9/S27 is successful, that means one other launch and then an end of the year launch could happen. If this next launch doesn't make orbit, we're looking into '24, just figuring FAA involvement.

      I figure if it wasn't for the FAA, SpaceX would have launched last month.

    2. And now it looks like the next launch will be October earliest. Bummmer.

    3. FWIW, I was figuring the end of this month. I didn't see anything about an October date while looking around.

      They de-stacked the ship today, though. One of the things everyone was saying is that among the final things to do before launch is to arm the FTS and that requires de-stacking. Once they do that, though, the area around the OLIT becomes a hazardous work area and has to be handled differently in terms of who can work there and what can be done.

    4. Oh, yeah, nothing says 'potentially unsafe work environment' like live explosives just over your head.

  2. Until we see hardware, it's a pipe dream. Artist conceptions and animations are cool, but you need to send SOMEthing to orbit, y'all.
    Not holding my breath nor betting the farm. SpaceX is a LOT farther down the road than anybody else, hands down.

  3. Back when Shuttle was still flying, Glenn had been working on the Cryogenic Fluids Management Facility Experiment (CFMFE), a proof of concept for refueling cryogens in space. Much as the Orbital Refueling System (ORS) was a proof of concept for storable propellant refueling in space.

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  5. This technology is of vital importance. I wish them all accelerated development and success.

  6. The oil companies should be fighting over who gets to sponsor this.
    Shell, Mobil, Exxon, Texaco, Chevron, all vying for the first gas station in space?
    Epic PR win.