In this clean-room photo, Starfish Space’s Otter Pup docking spacecraft is attached to the top of Launcher’s Orbiter SN3 space tug. (Launcher / Starfish Space Photo)

Starfish Space’s ambitious mission to test its on-orbit satellite docking system has taken an unfortunate turn — or, more precisely, an unfortunate spin.

The Tukwila, Wash.-based startup’s Otter Pup spacecraft was one of 72 payloads sent into low Earth orbit on June 12 by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for Transporter-8, a dedicated rideshare mission. Otter Pup and several other spacecraft were attached to Launcher’s Orbiter SN3, a space tug that’s designed to release piggyback payloads at different times.

Soon after Orbiter SN3 separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage, it experienced an anomaly that set it spinning at a rate on the order of one revolution per second, far outside the bounds of normal operating conditions.

By the time Launcher’s team made contact with Orbiter, fuel and power levels were critically low — and the team made an emergency decision to deploy Otter Pup immediately. In a joint statement issued today, Launcher and Starfish Space said that quick action “gave the Otter Pup mission a chance to continue.”

With assistance from Astro Digital and ground station partners, Starfish’s team contacted Otter Pup and determined that it was generating power — but was also spinning because of the circumstances of its emergency deployment.

Starfish co-founder Austin Link told GeekWire that the spacecraft, which is about the size of a dorm-room fridge, has drifted several kilometers away from its Orbiter mothership. “They’re still in the same orbital neighborhood,” he said.

Starfish’s mission plan called for Otter Pup to execute a series of maneuvers leading up to a rendezvous and docking with Orbiter. Such maneuvers would demonstrate that Starfish’s guidance and navigation system, electric propulsion system and electrostatic capture system all work in orbit as designed. But Link said the maneuvers can’t be done unless the spinning can be stabilized.

“We’re uncertain what the future for the vehicle is,” Link said. “It’ll be very challenging to de-tumble and arrest the momentum. There’s also a chance that things have been damaged by this rotation rate that would prevent us from being able to do the mission going forward.”

And as if that’s not challenging enough, Orbiter SN3 is no longer available as a docking target because of its own rotation rate. We’ve reached out to California-based Launcher, which was recently acquired by a space station startup known as Vast, and will update this report with anything we hear back.

“Otter Pup is still alive, but the mission is hanging on by a thread,” Link said.

In the months ahead, Starfish’s team will try to stabilize Otter Pup and determine the satellite’s health. Link said the primary method for reducing rotation relies on the spacecraft’s magnetic torque rods.

“These are effectively electromagnets that you can use to push off of Earth’s magnetic field to de-tumble the satellite,” he explained. “They’re designed for much lower rotation rates than what we’re experiencing now, but they may be able to make a difference.”

If Otter Pup is healthy, and if the rotation rate can be reduced, Starfish Space could look for other satellites in nearby orbits to serve as replacement docking partners. Or it could demonstrate its maneuverability without doing a docking.

“It’s going to be more of a challenge than what we wanted it to be for this Otter Pup,” Link said. “We’ll keep working to see if we have a chance to test out some of the key technologies for this Otter Pup, and we’ll also double down on other ways to test, both on orbit and terrestrially in the laboratory.”

If resurrecting the spinning Otter Pup is a lost cause, Link said “there are definitely scenarios where we would consider similar on-orbit demonstrations.” The important thing is to prove out the technologies so that Starfish’s team can move on to offering its customers a full-scale Otter docking craft to assist with satellite servicing or end-of-life disposal.

“It’s definitely not a mortal blow,” Link said. “The company’s fortunate to still be in a very strong position, with a great team and great technology and great customer interest. The on-orbit proof points for the technology are at the very least delayed, unfortunately, because of the position that Otter Pup was put in. But there are still a variety of paths forward for us to pursue. It’s still a really exciting future, and we’re really excited to chase after it.”

Starfish Space was founded in 2019 by Link and Trevor Bennett, both of whom previously worked as engineers at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. The startup has attracted a little more than $21 million in funding from investors including Munich Re Ventures, Toyota Ventures, PSL Ventures, NFX and MaC Venture Capital. It has also received a series of technology development grants from the U.S. Space Force and NASA.

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