TAMPA, Fla. — Starfish Space has raised $14 million for its planned satellite life extension and debris removal service in a funding round led by insurance giant Munich Re’s venture capital arm, the startup announced March 8.
The Kent, Washington-based startup founded by former Blue Origin and NASA engineers in 2019 has now raised more than $21 million to develop Otter, an all-electric servicing spacecraft slightly bigger than a mini-fridge.
This summer, SpaceX plans to launch a microwave-sized demonstrator for Starfish that will attempt to dock with another test spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO).
After getting dropped off at an initial altitude by an orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) from small rocket developer Launcher, Starfish’s Otter Pup demonstrator will attempt to rejoin the space tug using electric propulsion and an electrostatic capture mechanism. Launcher’s first and latest OTV failed shortly after launching on a Falcon 9 rocket in January.
Starfish flight tested the rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking software it will use for this mission in 2021 during Orbit Fab’s spacecraft LEO refueling demo.
Starfish sees growing demand for life extension services in the geostationary orbit (GEO) market, which Northrop Grumman is also targeting with much larger spacecraft currently attached to two Intelsat satellites.
Once docked, the Otter would use its onboard propulsion to extend the lifetime of a GEO satellite by helping to keep it in its orbital slot for several additional years. GEO satellites are typically designed to have enough fuel to operate for 15 years.
The startup’s planned LEO debris removal service would work in a similar fashion, Starfish strategy and operations lead Ari Juster told SpaceNews via email.
“Once docked, instead of maintaining the satellite in its station, the Otter pulls the satellite down close enough to the Earth where it will quickly de-orbit from there,” Juster said.
“Once the desired altitude is reached, the Otter detaches from the client satellite and boosts itself back up to LEO to conduct further servicing missions. A single Otter is designed to accomplish multiple LEO deorbit missions over its lifetime.”
He said the Otter as a platform is being designed to perform both missions with limited modifications, although each Otter vehicle would focus on serving customers in either GEO or LEO.
Juster said funds from the Series A round help accelerate work on its first commercial Otter vehicles, whereas earlier funds primarily supported the Otter Pup mission and developing core software and hardware technologies.
“Broadly speaking, we expect the first launch of a commercial Otter could take place within the next couple of years in line with significant customer demand we are receiving,” he said.
The venture plans to add 10-15 employees to its current team of 26 full-time staff by the end of the year across a range of software, hardware, and business development disciplines.
Rising investor appetite for debris removal
Munich Re invested in the newly closed Series A round via Munich Re Ventures, its venture capital arm, which has also invested in Orbit Fab.
Last year, Munich Re Ventures also led a 5.5 million euro ($5.8 million) funding round for Okapi, which is developing space traffic management software to help satellite operators reduce maneuvers to save fuel.
Munich Re is one of the world’s biggest insurance providers, and covers assets that include satellites facing a growing threat of colliding with debris in crowded orbits.
“In-orbit servicing such as active debris removal and life extension of satellites will play a key role in enabling a sustainable infrastructure in space,” Stephanie Deml, head of aviation and space at Munich Re, said in a recent blog post.
“We are keen to contribute to the success of these missions by developing bespoke risk transfer solutions.”
Toyota Ventures, the venture capital arm of Japanese automaker Toyota, also participated in Starfish’s Series A, along with existing investors PSL Ventures, NFX, and MaC VC.
Despite challenging macroeconomic conditions, startups with solutions for removing orbital debris have been a bright spot for early-stage space investments this year.
Japan’s Astroscale announced Feb. 27 it had raised $76 million in a Series G funding round, bringing the total raised to date for its in-orbit servicing plans to more than $376 million.
A month earlier, Swiss debris-removal startup ClearSpace said it had raised about $29 million in a Series A round, bringing its total to around $140 million.