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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?’”

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GeekWire

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.

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GeekWire

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.

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GeekWire

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.

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Cosmic Space

Blue Origin veterans spark space startups

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture turned 20 years old this week — and although the privately held company hasn’t yet put people into space, or put a rocket into orbit, it has spawned a new generation of space startups.

One of those startups, Relativity Space, pulled up stakes in Seattle early on and moved to Southern California. Now it’s making a multimillion-dollar splash and putting the pieces in place for the first launch of its Terran rocket from Florida next year.

Relativity is also going through a leadership transition: Jordan Noone, the venture’s co-founder and chief technology officer, announced today on Twitter that he’ll step back and become an executive adviser “in preparation for starting my next venture.” Relativity’s other co-founder, Blue Origin veteran Tim Ellis, will stay on as CEO.

Other startups are in semi-stealth mode. Here are three notable Seattle-area ventures with Blue Origin connections:

Stoke Space Technologies: Incorporated last October in Renton. Co-founders are CEO Andrew Lapsa, who was responsible for all aspects of development and operation for Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 and BE-3U engines; and Thomas Feldman, an engineer who played a key role in designing components for the more powerful BE-4 engine, fueled by liquefied natural gas.

Stoke’s website says the company is “building technology to seamlessly connect Earth and orbit.” In May, the company won a $225,000 SBIR Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation to work on an integrated propulsion solution for reusable rocket upper stages.

Stoke says it’ll use the NSF funding “to develop new technology enabling space launch vehicles to re-enter the atmosphere and land propulsively at a target destination for reuse.” SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket are designed with first-stage reusability in mind. Stoke is looking ahead to the next giant leap in reusable rockets.

In addition to Lapsa and Feldman, LinkedIn lists three other Stoke employees with Blue Origin experience. And they have  job openings for a lead system architect and a “Superhuman.”

Reach Space Technologies: Incorporated in February in Maple Valley. The company’s website is still password-protected, but LinkedIn lists Mike Krene, former senior propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, as founder and CEO. Krene spent a decade at Blue Origin, and before that, he dealt with propulsion systems at SpaceX and Pratt & Whitney.

The venture says it aims to “accelerate the time and reduce the cost for new launch startups to get to commercial viability, thereby growing the overall launch market.”

“Our engine systems also provide a high-value, commercially focused propulsion option for existing NewSpace and traditional launch providers,” Reach Space says on its LinkedIn page.

The company says it has between two and 10 employees, including “leading engineers with experience across many flight and development rocket engine systems.”

Starfish Space: Incorporated last November in Kent, where Blue Origin is headquartered. The co-founders are Trevor Bennett, a former flight sciences engineer at Blue Origin; and Austin Link, who spent three years at Blue Origin as a flight sciences simulation engineer. Ian Heidenberger, Starfish’s principal roboticist, was an autonomous-controls engineer at Blue Origin.

Starfish says it’s a venture-backed startup but has not yet revealed details about its investors or investments. It’s working on an “on-demand, in-space transportation service,” including a space tug that could be used to relocate, deorbit or extend the life of satellites. It’s also developing the software to support rendezvous and proximity operations — with an emphasis on electric propulsion.

Four years ago, Jeff Bezos told me his goal for Blue Origin was to build the “heavy-lifting infrastructure” for a wider space industry ecosystem, just as the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and the internet furnished the infrastructure that got Amazon off the ground. Now it looks as if Blue Origin is providing a seedbed for that ecosystem, even before the company has fully occupied its own niche in the marketplace.

Correction for 12:35 a.m. PT Sept. 10: We’ve fixed the spelling of Ian Heidenberger’s name. Hat tip to Isaac Alexander.