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 Startup.
“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?’”
Those visions — whether it be of 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 sending up the Otter Pup, which is about the size of a microwave oven, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a piggyback payload that’s mounted onto Launcher Space’s Orbiter space tug. The operation would be part of SpaceX’s Transporter-8 mission, which is currently due to launch an assortment of payloads in the April-May time frame.
After the Otter Pup is sent out from the Orbiter, Starfish’s spacecraft (built by Astro Digital) will execute a series of maneuvers using a xenon-fueled electric propulsion system that’ll be 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 its Cephalopod trajectory planning software.
The mission’s primary goal is to return to the vicinity of the Orbiter, at an altitude of roughly 300 miles, and then use an electrostatic-based capture mechanism called Nautilus to latch onto a docking target on the Orbiter. Honeybee Robotics, a subsidiary of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, supported Starfish Space in the effort to design and build the Nautilus.
“We’ll drift away, and then start from kilometers away and come all the way back down to zero,” said Bennett, who co-founded Starfish Space with fellow Blue Origin veteran Austin Link in 2019.
It could take weeks or even months to fine-tune the software and the procedures for docking. “We’ll get closer and closer, and we’ll ultimately decide, yes, today is the day we’re going to go in and actually try to bring that all the way to zero separation, and make that nice docking attempt,” Bennett said.
Doing one successful docking would be just the start. Bennett said the Otter Pup could repeatedly pull away and hook up with the Orbiter, trying out different approach patterns. There’s a chance that the Otter Pup could help dispose of the Orbiter by sending it on a controlled descent through the atmosphere.
This wouldn’t be the first robotic satellite docking: In 2020, for example, Northrop Grumman sent up a satellite known as MEV-1 to hook up with the Intelsat 901 satellite and give it an orbital boost. The mission demonstrated how on-orbit servicing can be used to extend the life of costly satellites.
Starfish’s Otter Pup could provide a lower-cost alternative. “Space shuttle was a billion dollars per Hubble mission,” Bennett said. “And if you look at Orbital Express and some of the other major successes in docking, even Northrop Grumman’s MEV, the efforts and intensity to go do some of these missions have just always exceeded multiple 10X or 20X of what we’re seeing our mission costing.”
Bennett said funding for the mission is coming from the more than $7 million in private investment that Starfish Space has brought in since its founding, plus development contracts from NASA and Pentagon programs.
If the Otter Pup does its job, that should clear a path for building the larger Otter spacecraft with additional backing from investors and potential customers. “Our timeline for that is 2024 and 2025,” Bennett said. Eventually, the technologies pioneered with the Otter Pup could be incorporated into other spacecraft as well.
“We think we will have the capability to go assemble spacecraft in orbit, and recycle spacecraft in orbit, to build the foundation for a full in-space ecosystem where you’re actually having spacecraft interact as part of their normal operation — rather than what is currently the paradigm, where you launch and then you never have anything touch your spacecraft again,” Bennett said.
Hmm … maybe that orbital starship factory isn’t that far off after all.