Starfish books launch for in-orbit satellite docking mission next fall

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TAMPA, Fla. — Starfish Space said Nov. 9 it plans to perform the first satellite docking test using electric propulsion next fall, when its Otter Pup demonstrator will attempt to rendezvous with another spacecraft in low Earth orbit.

An orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) from Launcher, a small rocket developer, aims to drop the demonstrator off at an initial altitude after riding together on a Falcon 9 in the summer. The OTV will also serve as its docking target.

Kent, Washington-based Starfish said the OTV and Otter Pup have secured a launch on SpaceX’s Transporter 8 rideshare mission.

Exotrail, which is also developing OTVs, is providing the electric propulsion thruster that Otter Pup will use for a mission aiming to demonstrate key technologies for Starfish’s in-orbit servicing business.

Starfish says using electric propulsion, instead of chemical-based alternatives, will enable it to produce servicers that are cheaper and smaller than the servicing spacecraft that Northrop Grumman and Astroscale currently have in orbit.

“We are trying to dock a satellite at 5% the cost of any similar mission in history,” Starfish co-founder Trevor Bennett said.

Astro Digital is manufacturing the chassis for Otter Pup, which is about the size of a microwave, and Redwire is providing the Argus camera hardware it will use for relative navigation. 

The mission also aims to demonstrate Starfish’s rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking (RPOD) technologies, including software for determining the relative position of a docking target and for planning trajectories.

Starfish flight tested its RPOD software during Orbit Fab’s spacecraft refueling demo mission last year in low earth orbit.

Starfish co-founder Austin Link said this software is capable of taking Otter Pup from several kilometers away in for docking without any human input.

However, “with an abundance of caution for this mission we do have multiple time windows where humans can decide we’re not comfortable and we can halt the trajectory sequence,” he added via email.

After separating from the OTV, Otter Pup is due to lock back on with an electrostatic-based capture mechanism Starfish calls Nautilus, before detaching and retreating to a safe distance to conduct other tests.

Honeybee Robotics supported Nautilus’s mechanical design.

Link said the venture is still deciding where to dock with the OTV. 

We won’t dock back exactly where we’re released from because there’s a separation ring in that spot, but there are a couple locations near there,” he said.

If the demo is successful, Starfish aims to develop a slightly larger Otter satellite servicing vehicle — somewhere between the size of a mini-fridge and an oven — that could extend the life of geostationary satellites in addition to disposing of debris.

The venture raised $7 million last year from early-stage investors to accelerate its plans.