The Total Addressable Market (TAM) for space in-orbit refueling was valued at USD 2.4 million in 2022. It is estimated to reach USD 1,080 million by 2031, growing at a CAGR of 97.15% during the forecast period (2023–2031).
Engineers have understood the significance of maintaining sustainable space missions by supporting more ways of resource re-utilization due to the exponential growth of satellites and space trash. Space in-orbit refueling system includes several operations such as satellite assembling and manufacturing, refueling, inspecting, repairing, deorbiting, and transporting. Space in-orbit refueling process reduces the overall costs, increases mission life enhances reusability, and makes missions more sustainable.
Space in-orbit refueling can be done for various satellites for applications such as Earth observation, communication, and navigation. The initial costs to launch many applications are relatively substantial. Even though the satellites could be capable of further usage, fully functional satellites need to be replaced and deorbited due to an empty fuel tank. Space in-orbit refueling systems can extend the life of satellites once or multiple times and lead to cost savings, resulting in more sustainable space missions.
Space sustainability has taken a significant step forward with in-orbit refueling and satellite servicing. Innovations aim to restore life to old satellites and expand the range of future spacecraft missions well beyond their original targets. Earlier, satellites were considered fixed assets that lost their value with time, even though the components inside them were fully functional. Therefore, refueling technologies can save considerable capital in replacing those satellites. In addition, the buildup of excessive space junk has led to growing safety concerns.
GEO satellite life extension and servicing is a very lucrative market for all the key players, as GEO satellites are the most expensive to replace. The participation of space in-orbit refueling companies such as SpaceX, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and even government organizations such as ESA and NASA indicate the need and potential of the space in-orbit refueling market.
In-orbit refueling enables satellite operators to get greater returns on their investments by extending the lifetime of satellites. Life extension services are the most crucial in-orbit service in the entire space in-orbit servicing market as multiple services such as de-orbiting, inspecting, manufacturing, and assembling depend on it. For instance, Astroscale’s Life Extension In-orbit (LEXI) Servicer is designed to dock and undock multiple times, which makes it capable of extending the lives of various satellites. ELSA-M servicer is also designed to demonstrate several innovative operations, such as refueling and de-orbiting capabilities. However, suppose the LEXI Servicer is created as a one-time asset and not refueled in space. In that case, it will add to the space debris in the area, and all the expensive technologies and capabilities will be ineffective. Therefore, it is crucial to extend the life of such servicing spacecraft by refueling and repairing them.
Another such powerful robotic system is Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER). Maxar Technologies Inc. and NASA are working on SPIDER to demonstrate on-orbit assembly and reconfiguration for spacecraft parts. Hence, life extension is not only beneficial for satellites but is also helpful for other servicing spacecraft.
Life extension services are lucrative only for higher orbits such as MEO or GEO currently, considering the operational costs involved. For instance, satellites in GEO are costly to build, their average cost ranges between USD 150 and USD 400 million per satellite, and operators need about three to five satellites to get full coverage of the Earth. Since replacing satellites in GEO is extremely expensive, refueling them is economically viable and saves effort and capital for operators.
Costs to launch into low Earth orbit are far lower, but sending a refueling mission there would be comparable to sending a new satellite into orbit. Therefore, to be economically viable and commercially attractive, the refueling spacecraft must be able to refuel several satellites in the LEO. Commercial feasibility for LEO is still a few years away due to the complexity of addressing many satellites in LEO.
Private investors, established players, government agencies, and venture capitalists are all investing in the startups for the space in-orbit refueling industry owing to the potential and possibility of return on investment. Certain satellite operators have even signed early contracts with space service providers to be their first customers when commercializing services. For instance, in April 2022, Momentus Space signed multiple launch agreements with SpaceX. This opportunity would demonstrate Vigoride's orbital transfer and customer delivery capabilities and help develop newer technologies to reduce costs and expand service offerings.
Increasing investments and participation of key established players in the space industry indicate the market's potential. Apart from them, the positive outlook of established players and investors toward the space in-orbit refueling industry will also help garner customer attention and build trust in the refueling services.
The global space in-orbit refueling market is segmented into application, end-user, and capability.
By application, the global market is divided into earth observation, communication, and navigation.
The communication segment is the highest market share and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 95.62% over the forecast period. Communication satellites are primarily placed in higher orbits and cost about USD 150-400 million per satellite. Moreover, manufacturing communication satellites is extremely expensive, and operators often must place about three to five satellites to ensure complete coverage of Earth. Once these expensive communication satellites run out of fuel, they are non-operational, even if their other components would still be functional. In such cases, the cost for operators to replace their satellites is immense. Therefore, refueling the satellites is more cost-effective.
Earth observation satellites help observe Earth from orbit and provide crucial data on land, oceans, atmosphere, and ice. These satellites enable the protection, monitoring, and management of the resources on Earth. Earth observation satellites are majorly present in the LEO and can perform remote sensing. Geostationary Earth observation satellites enable coverage of one-third of Earth for each satellite. Therefore, three GEO satellites at 120° apart can provide data for the entire Earth, except for extreme polar regions. In addition, GEO is most often used for meteorological satellites. Commercial and government players will soon perform demonstrations to refuel Earth observation satellites. For instance, NASA is planning to refuel Landsat 7 Earth observation satellite using a robotic arm as part of its OSAM-1 mission in the coming years.
By end-user, the global market is divided into commercial and others.
The commercial segment owns the highest market share and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 100.56% during the forecast period. The commercial end-user segment of the space in-orbit refueling market will witness the maximum growth rate over the forecast period due to the rapid growth in the technology advancements made by key players and multiple investments pouring in. For instance, in September 2021, NASA awarded funds to 14 companies as a part of its tipping point solicitation. Another example includes, in August 2021, Starfish Space Inc. won a USD 1.7 million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract from the U.S. Space Force for developing its Cephalopod software, which is an autonomous rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking (RPOD) software that utilizes electric propulsion to enable small RPOD spacecraft. Its onboard guidance can make a vehicle have eight times more maneuvering capability.
Other end-users of the global space in-orbit refueling market include the military, civil government, and research groups. Multiple kinds of satellites are used for military purposes, such as military communications, navigation, surveillance, and intelligence gathering. Military satellites' tasks directly affect the operational capability of military personnel as the satellites can provide critical data on enemy forces, including early warning or data regarding the movement or redeployment of troops. Several demonstrations are being conducted for military satellites to achieve refueling. For instance, the U.S. Space Force aims to send three small satellites to GEO in 2025 that will attempt to dock with a propellant tank for in-orbit refueling. Additionally, in March 2022, Orbit Fab, Inc. won a USD 12 million deal to ensure its fueling ports were compatible with the U.S. military satellites.
By capability, the global market is divided into propellant transfer, in-orbit rendezvous, and in-orbit propellant storage.
The in-orbit segment is expected to grow significantly over the forecast period. In-orbit rendezvous is crucial for any successful refueling operation. A satellite and refueling vehicle must perform the rendezvous process safely and correctly for successful refueling. In some cases, it includes an extended car attached to a customer satellite and provides it with altitude control, propulsion, and propellant transfer. If the rendezvous is not successful or occurs incorrectly, there is a need for corrective measures in the mission plan and spacecraft design. The remedial measures are necessary because when the rendezvous occurs and a new vehicle attaches to the satellite incorrectly, the center of gravity of the entire unified structure shifts and is not as stable as before, which might tumble. The mission must switch to a deorbiting mission once rendezvous has taken place, and refueling is no longer an option to avoid interfering with other activities. This revolutionary idea is being explored explicitly by satellite manufacturers and operators in the GEO. It is the most feasible way to refuel satellites in the GEO.
In-orbit propellant storage is a concept that aims at creating fuel stations in space. A company can place multiple gas stations into orbit around Earth to facilitate the necessary satellite refueling. The turnaround time of in-orbit refueling service is crucial for successful refueling missions. A fuel depot means that there are multiple fueling spacecraft waiting in orbit with a large amount of fuel that would be delivered to different satellites waiting in orbit, or that fuel would be stored at a space in-orbit refueling station for long periods until there is a need to refuel. However, in-orbit propellant storage is hazardous and challenging to get government approval. Fuel stations in space pose a significant risk to the surrounding satellites; therefore, it is crucial that even if fuel stations come into existence, they are safe and developed while maintaining an appropriate distance from other satellites.
By region, the global space in-orbit refueling market is divided into North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.
North America Dominates the Global Market
North America is the most significant shareholder in the global space in-orbit refueling market and is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 97.29% during the forecast period. The presence of major industry players and the maximum number of space in-orbit refueling companies such as Northrop Grumman Corporation, Lockheed Martin Corporation, SpaceX, Momentus Space, Tethers Unlimited, Inc, and Orbit Fab, Inc is expected to drive market growth. In this region, organizations such as NASA, private investors, venture capitalists, and aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and SpaceX have poured in massive funds for developing in-orbit refueling technologies. For instance, in September 2021, Starfish Space Inc. raised USD 7 million from NFX, MaC Venture Capital, PSL Ventures, Boost VC, Liquid2 Ventures, and Hypothesis to accelerate the development and in-orbit servicing space tug that can help eliminate orbital debris and perform life extension operations.
Europe is expected to grow at a CAGR of 96.56% over the forecast period. Europe has massive government support and investor interest in the space sector. The region is home to several key companies that provide in-orbit refueling solutions and services all across the globe. In addition, Europe consists of several key players in the space in-orbit refueling market, such as D-Orbit SpA, Thales SA, and LMO Space. The majority of funding for space entrepreneurs in Europe comes from private investors and venture capitalists. Space debris is becoming a bigger problem as there are more mega-constellations, endangering all spacecraft in their vicinity and necessitating space junk clearance. To support clean-up initiatives, the European Space Agency is funding space sustainability initiatives such as Clean Space to eliminate defunct satellites from orbit.
Asia-Pacific's space industry is gaining more attention as this region is prospering because of its accelerated growth pattern as several economies are experiencing fast economic development, such as Australia and India. Countries in this region have been increasingly focusing on producing small satellite constellations that can provide satellite-based services. Currently, the growth in the region will be led by Australian, Indian, and Japan-based companies. In addition, few companies in the Asia-Pacific region are working specifically in the in-orbit refueling or in-orbit services segment. Most companies in this region are working toward debris mitigation in Asia-Pacific.
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