Starfish Space, a Seattle-area startup founded by two veterans of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, has raised $14 million in funding to support its plans to develop spacecraft capable of hooking up with bigger satellites to boost their orbits — or safely dispose of them.
The Series A funding round was led by Munich Re Ventures, with additional participation from Toyota Ventures and previous investors including PSL Ventures, NFX and MaC VC. “MRV is excited to back this talented team of engineers, scientists and operators as they aim to open up the in-space economy,” Peter Ortez, a principal at Munich Re Ventures, said today in a news release.
Starfish Space has now attracted a little over $21 million in total investment, including pre-seed and seed funding rounds, said Austin Link, who co-founded the company in 2019 with fellow Blue Origin alumnus Trevor Bennett.
Link said the fresh funding will go towards completing the development of the Otter Pup, a prototype satellite servicing vehicle that’s about the size of a microwave oven, as well as the full-size Otter spacecraft. One of the top priorities for the company, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., is to add to its current headcount of 26 full-time employees.
“A big focus for Starfish Space over the course of this year is the Otter Pup mission and this little satellite that we’re going to use to attempt to dock with another satellite on orbit,” Link told GeekWire. “That’s a huge focus of the company, and we’re incredibly excited because of the technology that it can demonstrate around satellite rendezvous, proximity operations and docking.”
Link said that the Otter Pup is currently undergoing testing, and is on track to be ready for launch. “It’s almost shocking sometimes for the space industry to be going according to plan, which is really nice,” he said.
Starfish’s plan calls for Otter Pup to be sent into orbit this summer as a rideshare payload on SpaceX’s Transporter-8 mission. The spacecraft will be deployed from Launcher Space’s Orbiter space tug, and then will execute a series of maneuvers with a xenon-fueled electric propulsion system to move away from the tug.
If all goes well, the Otter Pup will return to the vicinity of the Orbiter, and then use an electrostatic-based capture mechanism to latch onto a docking target on the space tug. It could take months to test out the Otter Pup’s systems and tweak them as necessary for its test hookups.
A successful mission for the Otter Pup will be a confidence-booster as Starfish works on the full-size Otter. “If things go well, then we could be in a position to launch an Otter in the next couple of years,” Link said. “To fulfill the demand that we see out there for the Otter, it is likely that we will need further financing one way or the other to be able to manufacture and scale up with the Otter.”
In addition to private funding, Starfish Space has received technology development grants from NASA and the US Space Force’s SpaceWERX program.
Starfish isn’t the only company targeting the satellite servicing market: Back in 2020, Northrop Grumman sent up a prototype servicing vehicle known as MEV-1 to give an orbital boost to a telecommunications satellite and extend its operating lifetime. Starfish says its Otter system aims to do satellite life extension at scale and less expensively.
The ability to rendezvous and dock with other satellites — and guide them where they need to go — will become more important as companies including SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb fill out their broadband satellite mega-constellations, Link said. Safe disposal of aging satellites could be as important as keeping them alive.
“We allow folks to mitigate the risk of having a dead object threatening to potentially create debris that can destroy a constellation from the inside out,” Link said. “Folks do, and should, take the first step of trying to dispose of a satellite using their own onboard propulsion. In cases where that’s difficult, or doesn’t work out right, then the Otter can come up and ensure the full disposal of the satellites.”
Link said the Otter Pup and its descendants could open up a whole new frontier on the final frontier.
“We recognize that the ability to safely and reliably and affordably interact with other satellites on orbit is great for life extension and satellite disposal now, but it also opens up a wide world of possibilities in the future for assembly on orbit, upgrades on orbit, repair on orbit, recycling on orbit, mining on orbit,” he said.
“These are all sort of the same technologies as the things we’re developing for the Otter,” Link noted. “Frankly, I think it represents an entirely new paradigm for how humans can go out in the universe around us. And it’s amazing for us to have that opportunity in front of us.”