Reuters reports on the future of refueling on-orbit satellites. They give a balanced assessment regarding it’s potential (unlike those who thinks it lacks a not-taxpayer-funded future). Against:
Because the satellites weren’t designed with refueling in mind — they have no navigational aids, no reflectors, nothing to help guide in an approaching spacecraft — the technical hurdles are steep.
Since the same technology also could be used to disable satellites, [deputy project manager for the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Benjamin] Reed said NASA intends to be as open as possible about the project.
Yes, if the military was doing this, the cries of “space weapons” and “dangerous proximity operations” would be heard unto the ionosphere. NASA doesn’t get that much. Is that an argument for the existence of our civil space program?
On the ‘for space refueling’ side:
There are currently about 360 operational commercial communications satellites and another 100 [U.S.] government-owned satellites orbiting Earth.
"Every single one of them one day is going to run out of fuel and be thrown away. That’s the way it’s always been done. If a robot can go up and refuel it, you wouldn’t have to throw it away," Reed said.
“Throw it away”? I was under the impression we didn’t have a space trash can, but it could have been some sort of covert shuttle op. Is that another argument for the existence of our civil space program?
If refueling were the only variable, there would be more of a case to be made for space refueling. But it is far from the only variable: consider space law issues regarding liability; refueling versus replacing aged-out satellite technologies; solar arrays and other components which have been degraded by the space environment on the refueled satellites; how to economically orbit and deorbit the refueler itself; etc..
As such, space refueling has potential as a space service that can be sold to the U.S. government. Without such sponsorship, it is stillborn.