Fuel Tanker


Once the rendezvous technology of reboost becomes routine, satellites will be designed for refueling.  So the next business is assumed to be one where small craft rendezvous with expendable launchers or external fuel tanks, fill up with the reserve fuel contained there, and service other satellites in LEO with fuel. Thus, reboost packages may be refueled in LEO, and lift boost themselves to GEO, or be refueled in GEO. The viability of this business is tied to the Dv needed for LEO-GEO, the cost of fuel as obtained from the expendables (there is finite risk of collision creating a debris problem for the launcher's owners), and the cost of fuel delivered directly from Earth. Thus this business is surprisingly difficult to justify on the basis of return on investment. Its development, however, is crucial to following events, and to the justification of lunar and NEO-based fuel extraction enterprises which are postulated to be precursors to a true breakout from Earth orbit.  In view of this, viability of the fuel enterprise may require intervention from the Consortium or national agencies.


Here, the vehicle is modeled on existing cargo suppliers such as the Progress cargo/fuel vehicle, but with a low liftoff mass comparable to that of the 3rd stage engine of a GEO satellite, since its primary function is to be a fuel tank and a rendezvous vehicle. Hence the development cost is quite low. The challenging part of the operation is to rendezvous with expendable boosters and draw out their remaining fuel before they drop out of orbit, and then detach and transfer the fuel to customer craft. The advantage is that the fuel is obtained at a low cost, delivered in LEO, while it can be sold to craft bound for GEO or elsewhere.


Market Size for services is based on how many satellites require refueling.  The average lifetime for a satellite is 13 years.  As of 1995, there were 238 operational GEO satellites[i] (both commercial and military). We started at a low amount saying that out of the satellites in orbit, at least 10 of them are near the end of their lifetime and could be refueled.  Considering that each year, 12 satellites are put into orbit[ii], if refueling is an option, at least 10 could be refueled and used instead of launching another satellite.  With 10 as a maximum for number of services, the market size was randomly varied to reflect highs and lows of the business. The graph below shows that the enterprise breaks even in 13 years, and thereafter has a window of high profitability. The possibility of accidents and setbacks is not taken into account in this simple model.


Per Tanker

Mass - 2000 kg


    Material - $7 million

    Maintenance - $10 million


Per Service

Revenue - $15 million


    Operation: $10 million

    Launch - $13 million

    Fixed - $3 million


Launch Costs determined by $26,000/kg to GEO (source:  Futron[iii] , $13,000/kg to LEO)

Revenue starts decreasing by 5%, 20 years after start of company.








[i] Number of existing satellites taken from United States Department of Transportation. Special Report: GEO Satellite Markets and Functions. 3rd Quarter 1996, http://ast.faa.gov/files/pdf/sr_96_3q.pdf. Viewed Aug. 24. 2006.

[ii] Number of future satellite launches taken from Futron Corporation. How Many Satellites Are Enough?  A Forecast for Demand of Satellites 2004-2012. 16 February 2004. 22 August 2006.

http://www.futron.com/pdf/Satellite_Forecast_2004_2012_White_Paper.pdf. Viewed August 23, 2006.

[iii]Futron Corporation. Space Transportation Costs: Trends in Price Per Pound to Orbit 1990-2000. 6 September

2002. 22 August 2006. http://www.futron.com/pdf/FutronLaunchCostWP.pdf  Viewed Aug. 23, 2006.