Rapidly Attachable FluidTransfer Interface (RAFTI) developed by US-based aerospace startup Orbit Fab.

According to foreign media reports, a passive refueling module (PRM) developed by Northrop Grumman has been selected as the first refueling interface to refuel a US military satellite in space.

thriving space refueling

“Space refueling,” also known as in-orbit refueling, is a general term for refueling technologies applied to various spacecraft, including artificial satellites. It is a key component of the orbital service system in space.

The lifespan of a satellite is clearly limited by the fuel it carries. Many artificial satellites run out of fuel and are no longer able to control their attitude or operate in orbit, becoming space debris or falling into the atmosphere and burning up. And when that happens, the various payloads on the satellite may not have reached their design lifetime and may still function properly. Therefore, in-orbit refueling of satellites is an effective way to extend the service life of satellites.

In recent years, the U.S. aerospace sector has increased its interest in space refueling technology, spurring continued research in this area by some traditional military industry companies and space startups. A notable example is Space Logistics, a company specializing in orbital satellite services, which is actively working on the development of a new generation of mission vehicles. These vehicles are used to provide in-orbit services such as maintenance, attitude control, and refueling of geostationary satellites. The company plans to launch it in 2025.

Technology development for multiple companies

Because space refueling technology is in its infancy, there is intense competition among U.S. space companies in this field. Northrop Grumman's passive refueling modules have become the U.S. Space Force's preferred military satellite standard, giving the company a pioneering advantage in this field.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Space Force said it would continue to welcome other companies to provide solutions after selecting “passive refueling modules” as the standard for military satellites. For example, the Rapid Connectable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI), developed by US-based space startup OrbitFab using an alternative technology approach, has also been recognized and will be tested in the US-led In-Orbit Refueling Test Program. Space Force. His in-orbit service platform, Blue Ring, developed by another space startup, Blue Origin, also features a refueling interface.

focus on military applications

In recent years, in the context of new geopolitical trends and “great power competition” strategies, the U.S. Space Force has given space refueling technology an unmistakable military character.

Since its establishment in 2019, the U.S. Space Force has consistently emphasized restructuring the concept of space warfare, and one of its key focuses is “space mobility.” The deputy commander of the U.S. Space Force has previously said that the Space Force is not only aiming to develop a constellation of satellites with lower cost and greater coverage, but also pursues flexible space operations. Providing continuous maneuverability to orbital combat platforms is a prerequisite for supporting these operations.

In the future, the U.S. Space Force plans to widely equip military satellites with on-orbit refueling interfaces to conduct space refueling, in order to extend the service life of military satellites and increase their maneuverability.

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