WASHINGTON — An orbital transfer vehicle that was part of a SpaceX rideshare mission malfunctioned shortly after deployment, putting into jeopardy a technology demonstration spacecraft for a satellite servicing startup.

Among the payloads on SpaceX’s Transporter-8 rideshare mission, which launched on a Falcon 9 June 12 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, was the Orbiter SN3 tug developed by Launcher. The vehicle caried several spacecraft intended to be deployed later.

However, in a June 21 statement, Launcher said that when it first made contact with Orbiter SN3 within an hour of separation, the vehicle “was experiencing an anomaly” where its attitude control system was spinning the spacecraft.

Controllers, concerned about losing power and propulsion, elected to immediately deploy all the smallsat payloads on board. That included Otter Pup, a technology demonstration spacecraft developed by Starfish Space to test satellite servicing technologies. In the planned mission, Otter Pup would have separated from the tug and then attempt to rendezvous with it.

Launcher said it then attempted to restore control of Orbiter SN3, shutting down non-critical systems to preserve power. However, the spacecraft remained in a power-negative state and controllers lost contact with it after six more ground station passes.

Starfish Space, meanwhile, has been working to get Otter Pup under control. The company said it was able to get into contact with the spacecraft three hours after deployment. “This transmission indicated that Otter Pup was power positive,” the company stated, “but that it was experiencing significant rotation induced from its emergency deployment from Orbiter.”

Starfish says that it is able to communicate with Otter Pup and that the spacecraft is responding to commands. However, the company says it has to reduce Otter Pup’s rotation rate before moving forward with any operational mission for the spacecraft.

“In the coming months, Starfish will work diligently to attempt to stabilize Otter Pup and verify the health of its systems,” the company stated. “Given the events experienced post-launch and the current state of the satellite, it is unlikely that Otter Pup will be able to continue with its mission. However, we will continue to try to save Otter Pup, and we are grateful for the continued support of our mission partners.”

Even if Starfish can stabilize Otter Pup, the spacecraft won’t be able to go ahead with its original mission to rendezvous with Orbiter SN3 because of that spacecraft is no longer operating. The company didn’t state what alternative missions it can perform to test technology it plans to use on future satellite servicing vehicles.

Launcher, in its own statement, said the root cause of the Orbiter problem appears to be with its software. “We have begun the implementation of corrective action to ensure this anomaly does not occur again on future missions and that the vehicle is more robust to this type of error,” it stated.

The failure is the second in as many missions for the Orbiter tug. The first Orbiter, launched on Transporter-6 in January, failed when it could not get into the proper attitude after deployment so its solar cells could generate power, which it blamed on a fault with a GPS antenna used for orientation control. None of the smallsat payloads on that Orbiter were deployed.

Between those two Orbiter missions, Launcher was acquired by Vast Space, a company developing commercial space stations. Launcher dropped plans to develop a small launch vehicle after the acquisition but said it would continue to work on Orbiter, flying it on several future Transporter missions.

Launcher said it is still planning to fly Orbiter on three Transporter missions in 2024, starting with Transporter-10 in February 2024 that will carry Orbiter SN5. “We are grateful that our current partners and customers are continuing to join us on our next flight,” it stated.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...