Just three years after its founding, a Tukwila, Wash.-based startup. called Starfish Space is putting the pieces in place to show how a low-cost satellite can connect to other spacecraft in orbit.
If next year’s experiment with a prototype satellite called Otter Pup is successful, it could pave the way for a fleet of larger Otter spacecraft to take on bigger tasks, ranging from satellite servicing to assembling spacecraft in orbit.
“I’ve always had this vision of an orbital shipyard where you could go and build the Starship Enterprise and explore strange new worlds, right?” Starfish Space co-founder Trevor Bennett told GeekWire.
“I’d love to see an ‘Uber space’ future 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 it sends a message back after it’s done and says, “I’m docked — what would you like to do next?”
Those visions — whether it’s a Starfleet construction crew or a space-based Uber rideshare — are still a long way off. But Starfish Space could begin its Otter Pup experiment as early as next spring.
The plan calls for Otter Pup, which is about the size of a microwave oven, to be sent aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a piggyback payload that is placed on the Space Launcher’s Orbiter tug. The operation will be part of SpaceX’s Transporter-8 mission, which is currently scheduled to launch a variety of payloads in the April-May timeframe.
Following Otter Pup’s launch from the Orbiter, the Starfish spacecraft (built by Astro Digital) will perform a series of maneuvers using a xenon-fueled electric propulsion system 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 mission’s primary goal is to return to the Orbiter’s range, at an altitude of about 300 miles, and then use an electrostatic capture mechanism called the Nautilus to lock onto a tether target on the Orbiter. Honeybee Robotics, a subsidiary of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company, supported Starfish Space in the Nautilus design and construction effort.
“We’re going to zoom out and then start at kilometers and go back to zero,” said Bennett, who co-founded Starfish Space with Blue Origin veteran Austin Link in 2019.
It may take weeks or even months to perfect the software and connection procedures. “We’re going to get closer and closer, and eventually we’re going to decide, yeah, today’s the day we’re going to go in and try to bring it all the way to the end of the split and make that nice docking effort.” Bennett said.
Making a successful connection would be just the beginning. Bennett said Otter Pup could repeatedly move away from and connect with the Orbiter, trying different approach patterns. There is a possibility that the Otter Pup could help dispose of the Orbiter by sending it on a controlled descent into the atmosphere.
This 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 showed how in-orbit servicing can be used to extend the life of expensive satellites.
Starfish’s Otter Pup could provide a lower cost alternative. “The space shuttle was 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 do some of these missions was always 10X or 20X more than what we see in our mission costing.”
Bennett said funding for the mission comes from the more than $7 million in private investment Starfish Space has brought in since its inception, as well as development contracts from NASA and Pentagon programs.
If the Otter Pup does its job, it will pave the way for the larger Otter spacecraft to be built with additional backing from investors and potential customers. “Our timeline for that is 2024 and 2025,” Bennett said. Eventually, the technologies pioneered with Otter Pup could be incorporated into other spacecraft.
“We believe that we will be able to assemble spacecraft in orbit and recycle spacecraft in orbit, to build the foundation for a complete ecosystem in space where spacecraft actually interact as part of their normal operation — instead of right now being the example , where you launch and then you don’t have anything touch your spacecraft again,” Bennett said.
Hmm… maybe this orbital starship factory isn’t so far away after all.