Starfish Space uses magnetism to rescue satellite

Two and a half months after Starfish Space’s first orbital mission teetered on the edge of failure because its Otter Pup satellite docking system took a wild tumble, the Kent, Wash.-based startup says that it has stopped the spin and is moving ahead with preparations to rendezvous with another satellite.

Mission controllers still have to make sure that Otter Pup is in working order, and they still have to identify a satellite they can link up with. But Starfish co-founder Austin Link said the team has gotten over the highest hurdle: “de-tumbling” a spacecraft that had been rotating at a rate of roughly one revolution per second.

“This is the first time that we as a company have gone and done something really unique and really extraordinary in space,” Link told me. “It wasn’t the thing that we set out to do with this mission. We still have that ahead of us. But to do that is, to me, another proof point for how excited I am to get to work with all the incredible folks we have at Starfish.”


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.


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.


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.


Small businesses win NASA’s support for space tech

NASA’s latest round of small-business grants will support aerospace-related technologies ranging from a new kind of spacecraft docking mechanism to a power beaming system suitable for use on the moon.

Those are just two of the projects receiving Phase I grants from the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

The grants will go to 300 proposals from 249 small businesses and 39 research institutions across the country. Each proposal team will receive $150,000 to establish the merit and feasibility of their innovations, representing a total agency investment of $45 million. SBIR Phase I funding supports projects for six months, while the STTR Phase I funding is meant to cover 13 months of work.

“NASA has a key role to play in growing the aerospace ecosystem in our country,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early stage innovation and partnerships for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release. “Through these early-stage small business awards, we are inviting more innovators into this growing arena and helping them mature their technologies for not only NASA’s use, but for commercial impact.”

Gynelle Steele, deputy program executive for NASA’s SBIR/STTR program, said the grants are meant to “nurture pioneering ideas from a diversity of innovators across the country that may not attract the initial private industry funding needed to thrive.”


Starfish Space raises $14M for satellite servicing vehicles

Starfish Space, a Seattle-area startup founded by two veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, has raised $14 million in funding to support its plans to develop spacecraft capable of hooking up with bigger satellites to boost their orbits — or safely dispose of them.

The Series A funding round was led by Munich Re Ventures, with additional participation from Toyota Ventures and previous investors including PSL Ventures, NFX and MaC VC. “MRV is excited to back this talented team of engineers, scientists and operators as they aim to open up the in-space economy,” Peter Ortez, a principal at Munich Re Ventures, said today in a news release.

Starfish Space has now attracted a little over $21 million in total investment, including pre-seed and seed funding rounds, said Austin Link, who co-founded the company in 2019 with fellow Blue Origin alumnus Trevor Bennett.

Link said the fresh funding will go toward completing the development of the Otter Pup, a prototype satellite servicing vehicle that’s about the size of a microwave oven, as well as the full-size Otter spacecraft. One of top priorities for the company, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., is to add to its current headcount of 26 full-time employees.


Starfish Space unveils plan to dock with a satellite

Just three years after it was founded, a Tukwila, Wash.-based startup called Starfish Space is putting the pieces in place to demonstrate how a low-cost satellite can hook up with other spacecraft in orbit.

If next year’s experiment with a prototype satellite called Otter Pup succeeds, that could open the way for a fleet of bigger Otter spacecraft to take on bigger tasks, ranging from satellite servicing to on-orbit spacecraft assembly.

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

“I would love to see a future of ‘space Uber,’ where Otters could be up there and be on demand,” he said. “You could imagine texting an Otter to say, ‘Hey, a customer would love to have you over there.’ And then it sends a text back after it’s done its operation and says, ‘I’ve docked — what would you like to do next?’”


NASA funds big ideas from small businesses

How do you keep moondust from gumming up the works in NASA’s future spacesuits and spacecraft? That’s one of the issues addressed in the latest batch of projects backed by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

“NASA is working on ambitious, groundbreaking missions that require innovative solutions from a variety of sources – especially our small businesses,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a news release. “Small businesses have the creative edge and expertise needed to help our agency solve our common and complex challenges, and they are crucial to maintaining NASA’s leadership in space.”

Four SBIR research contracts will go to Washington state companies. And two of those contracts are going to Everett-based Off Planet Research. One Off Planet project focuses on the development of a flexible fiber seal that will hold up in dusty environments.


Starfish Space raises $7M to boost satellite servicing

Kent, Wash.-based Starfish Space says it’s raised $7 million to boost its drive to develop a space tug capable of moving objects into different orbits — or sending them down through the atmosphere for safe disposal.

The seed funding round was co-led by NFX and MaC Venture Capital, with participation from PSL Ventures, Boost VC, Liquid2 Ventures and Hypothesis.

Starfish Space was founded in 2019 by Austin Link and Trevor Bennett, two veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Kent-based Blue Origin space venture. The company’s senior roboticist, Ian Heidenberger, also came to the venture from Blue Origin.

The centerpiece of Starfish’s business plan is the Otter space tug, a small satellite that would be capable of capturing and moving other objects in orbit. Such a capability could address two of the emerging challenges in the satellite industry: extending the operating life of large, expensive geostationary spacecraft; and disposing of obsolete spacecraft and other space debris.


Startups join forces to support ‘gas stations’ in orbit

Starfish Space, a startup founded by veterans of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, is teaming up with Vermont-based Benchmark Space Systems to work on a precision-guided orbital refueling system for satellites.

The strategic collaboration calls for Starfish — which has its home base not far from Blue Origin’s HQ in Kent, Wash. — to test its Cephalopod docking software with Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system. The Halcyon thrusters use non-toxic hydrogen peroxide as their propellant.

The setup would get its first on-orbit demonstration during Orbit Fab’s Tanker-001 Tenzing mission, which is due for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next month. (The pre-launch logistics for that rideshare mission, known as Transporter-2, are being handled by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.)

“This Cephalopod mission is an exciting step for Starfish Space,” Trevor Bennett, Starfish’s co-founder, said today in a news release. “Our RPOD [rendezvous, proximity operations and docking] operations will validate our novel capabilities and set the stage for a new era of affordable and available satellite servicing.”

On-orbit servicing and refueling could extend the operating lifetimes of satellites, or allow for new spacecraft designs that wouldn’t need to carry so much fuel into orbit for in-space maneuvering.