Starfish Space unveils ambitious plan to demonstrate orbital satellite docking

Illustration: Starfish Space's Otter Pup satellite

An artist’s conception shows the Otter Pup satellite. (Space starfish illustration)

Just three years after its inception, a Tukwila, Washington-based startup called Starfish Space is putting together the necessary pieces to demonstrate how a low-cost satellite can connect to other spacecraft in orbit.

If next year’s experiment with a prototype satellite called the Otter Pup is successful, it could pave the way for a fleet of larger Otter spacecraft to take on more important tasks, from servicing satellites to assembly of spacecraft in orbit.

“I still have this vision of an orbital shipyard, where you could go build the Starship Enterprise and go off to explore strange new worlds, right?” Starfish Space co-founder Trevor Bennett told GeekWire.

“I would love to see a future of ‘Uber space,’ where Otters could be up there and be on demand,” he said. “You could imagine texting an Otter to say, ‘Hey, a customer would like to have you there.’ And then he texted back after completing his operation and said, “I’m docked – what would you like to do next?”

Those visions — whether of a Starfleet construction crew or a space-based Uber rideshare — are a long way off. But Bennett’s company could begin its Otter Pup experiment as early as next spring.

The plan calls for sending the Otter Pup, which is about the size of a microwave oven, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a superimposed payload that is mounted on Launcher Space’s Orbiter space tug. . The operation would be part of SpaceX’s Transporter-8 mission, which is currently scheduled to launch an assortment of payloads from April to May.

After the Otter Pup is launched from the Orbiter, Starfish’s spacecraft (built by Astro Digital) will perform a series of maneuvers using a xenon-powered electric propulsion system that will be provided by Exotrail. Redwire’s Argus camera hardware will be used for relative navigation, with guidance provided by Starfish’s cetacean computer vision system and cephalopod trajectory planning software.

The primary mission objective is to return to close proximity to the Orbiter, at an altitude of approximately 300 miles, and then use an electrostatic capture mechanism called the Nautilus to lock onto a docking target on the Orbiter . Honeybee Robotics, a subsidiary of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, supported Starfish Space in its efforts to design and build the Nautilus.

Trevor Bennett (Photo via LinkedIn)

Trevor Bennett (Photo via LinkedIn)

“We’re going to go away and then start miles away and back to zero,” said Bennett, who co-founded Starfish Space with fellow Blue Origin veteran Austin Link in 2019.

It could take weeks or even months to fine-tune the software and docking procedures. “We will get closer and closer, and we will finally decide, yes, today is the day that we are going to come in and try to bring this to zero separation, and make this nice attempt at docking,” says Bennett.

Doing a successful mooring would only be the beginning. Bennett said the Otter Pup could repeatedly walk away and connect to the Orbiter, trying different approach patterns. There’s a chance the Otter Pup could help dispose of the Orbiter by sending it on a controlled descent through the atmosphere.

It wouldn’t be the first robotic satellite docking: in 2020, for example, Northrop Grumman sent a satellite known as MEV-1 to dock with the Intelsat 901 satellite and give it an orbital boost. The mission demonstrated how in-orbit servicing can be used to extend the life of expensive satellites.

Starfish’s Otter Pup might provide a lower cost alternative. “The space shuttle cost a billion dollars per Hubble mission,” Bennett said. “And if you look at Orbital Express and some of the other major docking successes, even Northrop Grumman’s MEV, the effort and intensity to go and do some of those missions has always exceeded several 10X or 20X of what we’re seeing our mission costs.”

Bennett said funding for the mission came from the more than $7 million in private investment Starfish Space has provided since its founding, as well as program development contracts from NASA and the Pentagon.

If the Otter Pup does its job, it should pave the way for building the largest Otter spaceship with additional support from potential investors and customers. “Our timeline for that is 2024 and 2025,” Bennett said. Eventually, the technologies developed with Otter Pup could also be incorporated into other spacecraft.

“We believe we will have the ability to assemble spacecraft in orbit and to recycle spacecraft in orbit, to lay the foundation for a complete ecosystem in space where you actually have spacecraft interacting in the framework of their normal operation – rather than what the paradigm is right now, where you launch and then you never have anything touch your spacecraft again,” Bennett said.

Hmm… maybe that Orbital Ship Factory isn’t that far away after all.

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