Starfish’s docking spacecraft goes into a ill-starred spin

Starfish Space’s ambitious mission to test its on-orbit satellite docking system has taken an unfortunate turn — or, more precisely, an unfortunate spin.

The Tukwila, Wash.-based startup’s Otter Pup spacecraft was one of 72 payloads sent into low Earth orbit on June 12 by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for Transporter-8, a dedicated rideshare mission. Otter Pup and several other spacecraft were attached to Launcher’s Orbiter SN3, a space tug that’s designed to release piggyback payloads at different times.

Soon after Orbiter SN3 separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage, it experienced an anomaly that set it spinning at a rate on the order of one revolution per second, far outside the bounds of normal operating conditions.

By the time Launcher’s team made contact with Orbiter, fuel and power levels were critically low — and the team made an emergency decision to deploy Otter Pup immediately. In a joint statement issued today, Launcher and Starfish Space said that quick action “gave the Otter Pup mission a chance to continue.”

With assistance from Astro Digital and ground station partners, Starfish’s team contacted Otter Pup and determined that it was generating power — but was also spinning because of the circumstances of its emergency deployment.

Starfish co-founder Austin Link told me that the spacecraft, which is about the size of a dorm-room fridge, has drifted several kilometers away from its Orbiter mothership. “They’re still in the same orbital neighborhood,” he said.

Starfish’s mission plan called for Otter Pup to execute a series of maneuvers leading up to a rendezvous and docking with Orbiter. Such maneuvers would demonstrate that Starfish’s guidance and navigation system, electric propulsion system and electrostatic capture system all work in orbit as designed. But Link said the maneuvers can’t be done unless the spinning can be stabilized.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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