🔷 Gas Stations in Space

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Gas Stations in Space

The Space Force plans to launch a first-of-its-kind logistics mission in 2026, demonstrating the ability to maneuver and service spacecraft in orbit. This mission, involving on-orbit refueling and maintenance, aims to enhance satellite longevity and functionality.


Imagine if fighter jets had to carry all their mission fuel on board—without refueling. It would constrain the mission duration and even influence the design of the aircraft. Satellites are the same way, except when they run out of fuel, they are junk. For this reason, satellites are designed around a lifetime fuel supply.

Refueling ships underway has been a thing since the 1920s and aerial refueling has existed since the 1950s. But what about refueling satellites in orbit?

So What

The ability to maneuver and service spacecraft in orbit could revolutionize space logistics. Traditionally, satellites are abandoned once they deplete their fuel or face technical issues, leading to increased space debris and driving more launch missions to replace them.

On-orbit servicing can extend the lifespan of satellites, making space operations more sustainable and cost-effective. This niche is small but expected to more than double by 2030, and the military is definitely interested.

Last year, the Space Force awarded Astroscale $25.5m for an on-orbit refueling vehicle. More recently, Starfish Space was awarded a similar $37.5m contract to develop, launch, and operate an on-orbit servicing satellite. Notably, both of these contracts are augmented with private money.

What they are refueling is one thing—where they are refueling is the other. Both companies are targeting geostationary orbit (GEO), where $250m+ satellites—some the size of school buses—live.

These large distant satellites do military-like things like GPS, communication, and spying. But because they are way out there—roughly 69X further from Earth than SpaceX’s Starlink—they’re also expensive to get into orbit.


The military and intelligence community have long treated these expensive, high-value GEO satellites as vulnerabilities—they are huge targets, there are not many of them, and it takes 5+ years to get a replacement in orbit.

Because of this, there’s been a massive shift to low-cost distributed constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO), which the Pentagon calls proliferated low Earth orbit (pLEO).

Now What

While the Space Force’s 2026 mission is still a go (for now), there is a growing mis-match of this GEO refueling initiative when the Pentagon is moving to low-cost LEO. When you factor in the rapidly dropping cost-to-launch, the economics might not make sense—even if the tech works.

The Space Force is still grappling with the refueling math and is doing a deep-dive study on orbital refueling to clarify not only the military utility but also the business case to clear the confusion with industry.

In That Number


An estimated 16,000 energy drinks roll off the Morshynska beverage factory in Ukraine to support soldiers with caffeine.


How long was the shortest war in history?

A) 40 minutes
B) 11 hours
C) 6 days
D) 1 week

On the Radar

The Space Force's new Resilient GPS program is facing skepticism from Congress. The program intends to augment the existing 31 GPS satellites with a constellation of small navigation satellites. While the new LEO constellation would provide a layer of resiliency for the existing GEO satellites, some lawmakers think it doesn’t fundamentally solve the jamming and spoofing vulnerabilities.  

  • The Merge’s Take: First, did you even read the feature topic above? The Resilient GPS program is projected to cost $1B over the next five years—which sounds like a lot—but that’s an entire constellation for the cost of 4 regular GPS satellites. Second, because those satellites are 20,000 miles closer, the signal is inherently much stronger and harder to jam (like Starlink).  


It was a big week for Merlin Labs and EpiSci. Merlin Labs secured a $105m production contract to implement autonomy on SOCOM fixed-wing aircraft, starting with the C-130Js. EpiSci announced they were selected for DARPA's AIR program, which will use autonomously-flown F-16s for multi-ship, beyond visual range (BVR) counter-air scenarios. Then the announcement dropped that Merlin is buying EpiSci.

  • The Merge’s Take: The acquisition of EpiSci is a great strategic move, bringing together a company that was focused on integration and certification of autonomy onto large multi-crew aircraft (Merlin) and a company that has been focused on applying autonomy across tactical mission areas (EpiSci). This acquisition significantly bolsters positions on both ends of that spectrum and they can work to meet in the middle. OBTW, Merlin’s $105m contract is icing on the cake—it’s the largest known aerial autonomy award from the Pentagon, reflecting the growing importance of autonomous systems in military aviation beyond fighter-like CCAs.


The Air Force’s 6th-gen fighter isn’t safe from budget cuts. The Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is facing critical decisions as leaders decide whether to continue or cancel. The NGAD initiative aims to develop a 6th-gen fighter aircraft with advanced stealth, next-gen adaptive engines, AI-driven systems, and enhanced sensors to maintain air superiority against near-peer adversaries. However, the substantial costs, timelines, and threat environment changes have prompted debates about the program's viability and return on investment.

  • The Merge’s Take: This decision should not be taken lightly. On the one hand, the NGAD program was only projected to buy ~200 fighters that cost ~$300m apiece. That’s about the same size as the F-22 Raptor fleet, which is well-known for being a scarce resource in high demand because politics killed the program. And the economics aren’t pretty—the ~$300m price tag for 1 NGAD would buy 4 F-35s. On the other hand, NGAD is essentially the only Air Force program pushing several next-gen air domain technologies to high tech readiness levels (TRL). If the program dies, it will create a generational gap across the tech portfolio. Killing the program might also be another massive blow to Boeing, one of the 2 contractors in the running. Maybe there’s a universe where NGAD stays alive as a tech maturation program?

They Said It
“I thought, I’ll try to give at least one more command, one of the easiest: to lower altitude to a minimum, and then at that altitude, if I’m lucky enough, then that bastard will have GPS.”

Ivan Kaunov, explaining the experience of manually piloting a drone over the Russian line in Ukraine. He’s one of dozens of Ukrainians building their own tech solutions. His is called Buntar-1 (a “Rogue One” Star Wars reference), which works on software that programs missions so that the drone can operate free from the operator.

New Podcast!

Mike and Jake host Palantir CTO Shyam Sankar to talk about software-defined warfare, defense modernization, and all the things we’d change to drive innovation to help the warfighter.

No topic was off limits—including the time when Palantir sued the Army.

Even though Shyam is a software tech executive, we spent most of the time talking about culture, leadership mentalities, history, and structure changes that are as relevant in the Pentagon as they are in any other industry.

Of course, no episode would be complete without some lively banter and spicy takes!

Check it out!

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A). The Anglo-Zanzibar War was a very brief conflict between the British Empire and the East African island sultanate of Zanzibar in 1896. It lasted less than 40 minutes.