Two-year-old space startup In Orbit Aerospace wants to be the third-party logistics provider for Earth to space commerce — and to get there, the company just closed a new agreement to validate key technical capabilities on the International Space Station.
The El Segundo, California-based company is developing orbital platforms and re-entry vehicles to enable mass manufacturing and research in space. In Orbit’s plans are more than a little ambitious: The idea is to host customers’ factories or labs on an orbital platform. Uncrewed reentry vehicles would autonomously dock and rendezvous with the platforms, and a robotic system would transfer the manufactured material to that vehicle, which would then bring the products back to Earth.
“Automation and robotics is the backbone of industrial manufacturing on Earth,” CEO Ryan Elliott said in a statement. “It should be no different in space.”
It would be a mistake to think that In Orbit is trying to compete with in-space manufacturing companies like Varda Space or Space Forge, Elliott said in a recent interview. “Their customers and our customers are fundamentally different,” he said. “We provide logistics, hosting on orbit, [but] we don’t manufacture materials ourselves.”
Elliott and his two co-founders, Antonio Coelho and Ishaan Patel, have been pursuing this effort for a little over two years. To date, the company has raised around $2 million, and the team is currently fundraising to support a demonstration mission in early 2025.
For that first mission, the company will work with a satellite bus provider that will host a subscale variant of its orbital platform and reentry vehicle. If all goes to plan, the mission will demonstrate transferring material from the hosting platform to the reentry vehicle, and returning it to Earth.
In Orbit has a formidable amount of work ahead. The company needs to nail rendezvous and docking, transferring cargo between two spacecraft and the reentry process. Elliott said rendezvous, docking and reentry were particularly difficult challenges.
“There’s just not loads and loads and loads of commercial hardware for parachutes or heat shield material suppliers available,” he said. “Simulation and testing is really difficult, as well. You can’t test reentry in all its different environmental parameters on Earth. There’s only one way to do it, and it’s flight testing.”
The new agreement with NASA is part of how the company is trying to minimize these risks. Under a new space act agreement, In Orbit is partnering with Nanoracks to demonstrate autonomous docking and robotic transfer in a zero-gravity environment. Nanoracks, now owned by Voyager Space, is a long-time commercial resident of the ISS and frequently provides support to newer entrants looking to take advantage of the ISS National Lab. In Orbit’s testing will take place mid- to late-2025 at the earliest, Elliott said.
On a slightly longer scale, In Orbit is aiming to launch a second mission in 2026 and then partner with a spacecraft provider to host a manufacturing lab on orbit. The eventual goal is to leave hardware in space, and just launch the reentry capsules that would rendezvous and dock with the platforms on orbit.
In Orbit is expecting that its core customers will be manufacturers, which will want to outsource on orbit hosting. Those customers would be the ones to work with, say, pharmaceutical or semiconductor firms looking to manufacture products in space.
“The rate of people that we see that want to manufacture stuff in space is exponentially increasing,” Elliott said. “There’s a lot of hype around it. NASA is putting more funding into it. The DoD is really interested. There’s only going to be more.”