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Starfish Space wins $1.8M for satellite software

Kent, Wash.-based Starfish Space says it’s been awarded $1.8 million by AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force, to support continued development of the company’s Cephalopod software for satellite guidance, navigation and control.

The award builds on previous collaborations between Starfish and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Technically speaking, the contract is known as a Tactical Funding Increase, or TACFI. Ari Juster, strategy and operations lead at Starfish, said it was awarded as a follow-up to a $1.7 million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research contract that the startup received in 2021. In a news release, Starfish co-founder Austin Link said he was “excited to continue our collaboration with AFRL.”

“Cephalopod can serve as a key technology enabling future servicing missions to benefit satellite operators, and we have found the AFRL team to be great partners in supporting its development,” Link said.

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Amazon revises Project Kuiper satellite plans … again

Amazon’s plans to launch the first prototype satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband internet constellation have changed for the second time in a year — and once again, rocket development snags are the reason.

The revised plans call for KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 to be sent into low Earth orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, with launch set for no earlier than Sept. 26 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The spacecraft are meant to test the systems and processes that Amazon will use for thousands of satellites designed to provide global internet access. Production of those satellites is scheduled to begin this year at a 172,000-square-foot factory in Kirkland, Wash.

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LeoStella will be supersizing its small satellites

Tukwila, Wash.-based LeoStella is unveiling its latest, greatest platform for small satellites, which should hit a sweet spot for future manufacturing contracts.

LeoStella, which is a joint venture co-owned by European satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space and a geospatial data analysis company called BlackSky, started out in 2018 building Earth observation satellites for BlackSky’s Global constellation.

LeoStella’s LS-100 spacecraft platform, which is known in the space industry as a bus, was right-sized for those 120-pound (55-kilogram) satellites. But that was about as much mass as the LS-100 bus could accommodate.

When BlackSky came up with a more capable payload for its Gen3 satellites, LeoStella boosted its bus design to handle the added mass. Its LS-200 bus is suitable for satellites with a total weight of 330 pounds (150 kilograms), including 130 pounds (60 kilograms) of payload.

Now there’s a growing demand for a bigger class of small satellites, and LeoStella’s LS-300 bus is designed to serve that demand. The LS-300 design, unveiled in conjunction with this week’s Small Satellite Conference in Utah, can be used for satellites weighing 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms), with half of that mass available for the satellite’s payload.

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Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans satellite processing facility

Construction is underway for a $120 million facility in Florida that will process Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites for launch — marking one more giant leap toward creating the company’s global broadband internet constellation.

Details about the facility came to light today at a ceremony hosted by Amazon and Space Florida, the state’s aerospace industry development agency, at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch and Landing Facility. That former space shuttle landing strip where Amazon’s 100,000-square-foot facility will take shape in the months ahead.

The construction project complements Amazon’s efforts to create a 172,000-square-foot satellite production facility in Kirkland, Wash., which will turn out thousands of satellites for Project Kuiper. Today Amazon said that facility will begin production by the end of this year.

Amazon’s plans call for setting up a 3,236-satellite constellation, with at least half of those satellites launched by mid-2026. The resulting network is meant to provide broadband internet access for tens of millions of people around the world who are currently underserved — and will facilitate satellite-based offerings from Amazon Web Services and the Seattle-based company’s other divisions.

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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.

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Starfish Space’s docking spacecraft gets a big sendoff

A well-traveled SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket today launched dozens of satellites, including an experimental docking craft created by a Seattle-area startup called Starfish Space.

Starfish Space’s Otter Pup spacecraft was one of 72 payloads that were deployed into low Earth orbit after the launch of SpaceX’s Transporter-8 satellite rideshare mission from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Liftoff came at 2:35 p.m. PT, just hours after SpaceX launched 52 Starlink internet satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Minutes after the California launch, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster flew itself back to a landing pad not far from the launch site, marking the ninth successful launch and recovery for that booster. It was the 200th successful recovery of a Falcon 9 booster.

Meanwhile, the rocket’s second stage reached orbit and executed a meticulously choreographed series of deployments that ended nearly an hour and a half after launch. The long list of payloads included small satellites and a re-entry vehicle, as well as an orbital transfer vehicle that carried its own complement of spacecraft.

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LeoStella’s CEO raises his sights in the satellite revolution

TUKWILA, Wash. — Will LeoStella go beyond LEO?

It’s been four years since LeoStella, a joint venture created by BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space, opened the doors of its Tukwila factory and began building Earth observation satellites that BlackSky could launch into low Earth orbit, otherwise known as LEO.

Since then, the company has taken on other customers as well — including Loft Orbital Solutions, which offers a turnkey solution for flying and operating satellite payloads; and NorthStar Earth and Space, which is building a satellite constellation to monitor space traffic.

This week, LeoStella announced the completion and delivery of its 20th satellite — which happens to be the third satellite it’s built for Loft Orbital.

Meanwhile, Tim Kienberger is getting settled in as LeoStella’s new CEO. He took over the company’s top post in January, after building up decades of experience at other aerospace and defense companies such as Boeing and L3Harris. “What they hired me to do was to grow the business,” Kienberger told me.

The sky just might literally be the limit when it comes to LeoStella’s future growth. During last week’s interview at LeoStella’s Tukwila HQ, Kienberger said the company could eventually take aim at missions beyond Earth orbit — to support missions to the moon, for example, or to help humanity get to Mars.

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Microsoft Azure Space turns a chatbot into a satbot

Can a chatbot help Pentagon planners find the satellite data they need to understand what’s happening in a global hotspot? Microsoft Azure Space recently showed the U.S. military how an application beefed up with AI could do just that.

The daylong demonstration, which was conducted for the Defense Innovation Unit’s Hybrid Space Architecture program last month, is among several space-related developments that Microsoft and its partners showcased today in advance of next week’s Space Symposium in Colorado.

Other developments include a collaboration with Ball Aerospace and Loft Federal on an experimental satellite program for the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency; a new frontier for Microsoft Azure’s partnership with Viasat; and a milestone for the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

“Azure Space has been committed to enabling people to achieve more, both on and off the planet,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me. “And this commitment encompasses not only commercial [applications], but also empowers government missions as well. Digital transformation within the government is the key to unlocking the full potential of what’s possible in space, and Microsoft is providing these technologies and solutions to government agencies alongside our partners to make this transformation possible.”

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How power plays could open new frontiers in space

As more and more hardware goes into Earth orbit, and eventually to the moon and Mars, where will the power to run all those machines come from?

That’s one of the questions under consideration at a State of the Space Industrial Base workshop that’s being conducted this week at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

The workshop, hosted by Space Northwest, is bringing together government, academic and commercial leaders to assess the state of advanced power and propulsion for space missions, as well as the outlook for a Department of Defense initiative known as Hybrid Space Architecture.

Input from the workshop will be combined with insights gained at two other workshops in Florida and New Mexico to help the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit produce its annual report about the space industry’s potential contributions to sustaining America’s leadership on the final frontier.

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Pacific Northwest’s satellite hotspot celebrates its status

REDMOND, Wash. — This Seattle-area suburb has played a role in the space industry for more than a half-century, but the city of Redmond is shining brighter than ever on the final frontier — and now it has the brand name to prove it.

Welcome to the Redmond Space District.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney showcased the newly established district in a proclamation issued today during her annual State of the City Summit at City Hall, with representatives of the area’s leading space companies in attendance.

The district designation applies to the entire city rather than to a specific neighborhood. Birney told me she hopes the campaign will draw even more space ventures to Redmond.

“It creates that ecosystem of innovation, technology, knowledge, people — all of that to create that really central place so they can come in and know that they’re going to get different resources for the space industry,” she said.