WASHINGTON — The startup Starfish Space has secured a $37.5 million contract with the U.S. Space Force to develop, launch, and operate the company’s Otter satellite servicing vehicle in geostationary orbit by 2026. 

The four-year contract is a so-called STRATFI (Strategic Funding Increase) agreement, awarded by the Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space program office. It combines $37.5 million in government funds with an additional $30 million in venture capital investment. 

STRATFI agreements are used by the Defense Department to bridge the funding gap between technology development and actual applications.

“This project is another step forward in delivering what our warfighters require in sustained space maneuver,” Col. Joyce Bulson, director of servicing, mobility, and logistics at Space Systems Command, said May 20 in a news release.

‘Augmented maneuver’

Bulson said the Otter spacecraft will demonstrate capabilities to provide “augmented maneuver options” for military satellites. 

DoD’s satellites in GEO typically lack the ability to easily move themselves around. The Otter spacecraft would provide augmented maneuver by docking and attaching to the client satellite and using Otter’s own propulsion systems, giving the military satellite a push or a pull, making specific movements or adjustments to its orbit.

Starfish Space, based in Kent, Washington, was founded in 2019 by former Blue Origin and NASA engineers.

The company plans to operate the Otter vehicle as a commercial service. The spacecraft can navigate in close proximity and dock with government satellites, even unprepared or unconfigured ones, and then maneuver them while conjoined, the company said May 20 in a statement. “This augmented maneuver service with Otter will improve resilience, tactical responsiveness, and strategic flexibility of U.S. assets on-orbit in support of national defense priorities.”

Other possible applications

The Space Force is looking at various options to increase its capabilities to maneuver orbiting satellites. In-orbit refueling is one option. Another is to use servicing spacecraft like Otter. “There is a wide range of applications for Starfish Space’s Otter in addition to augmented maneuver, such as station-keeping or life extension, orbital transfer, and ultimately orbital disposal which assures access to key orbital slots while demonstrating responsible norms in space,” said Bulson.

Details of the specific government assets targeted for Otter’s first mission have not yet been disclosed.

Starfish Space over the past few years received several Small Business Innovation Research contracts from SpaceWERX, the technology arm of the Space Force. The company in 2023 launched a demonstration “Otter Pup” mission in low Earth orbit but it suffered an anomaly and was not successfully completed. 

“Starfish looks forward to collaborating with the Space Force to build the capabilities required to enable dynamic space operations,” said Trevor Bennett, co-founder of Starfish Space. 

“The STRATFI program enables rapid acquisition of novel capabilities, and allows us to match government resources with private capital from our investors,” he said. The Space Force mission also will help the government develop plans to integrate commercial services with DoD operations.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...