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Starfish Space wins NASA contract to plan demonstration of orbital debris inspection



An artist’s conception shows the Otter inspection spacecraft silhouetted against Earth as it closes in on a target satellite. (Starfish Space Illustration)

Even as Starfish Space works to get its first orbital demonstration mission back on track, the Tukwila, Wash.-based startup has won a contract from NASA to look into an even more ambitious project to inspect orbital debris up close.

The newly announced study contract follows up on earlier work that Starfish has done to prove out features of its system for making a rendezvous with other spacecraft in orbit — and either servicing them or guiding them to their demise.

Some of those features — including Starfish’s Cetacean relative navigation software and its Cephalopod autonomous guidance software — could be tested sometime in the next few months on the company’s Otter Pup prototype spacecraft, which was sent into orbit in June but was forced into an unfortunate spin during deployment. Starfish stabilized the spin in August and is currently making sure that all of Otter Pup’s systems are in working order for future tests.

NASA’s follow-up contract, awarded through the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR, calls for Starfish to assess the feasibility of using its full-scale Otter satellite servicing vehicle to rendezvous with large pieces of space debris and inspect them.

NASA and other federal agencies are getting more serious about addressing the proliferation of orbital debris: Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed new regulations that would require space operators to do more to avoid leaving debris behind — and this week, the FAA said it fined Dish Network $150,000 for failing to remove a satellite from geostationary orbit properly.


Starfish Space says its Otter spacecraft could serve as a robotic repair crew for satellites that need servicing, or as a robotic cleanup crew for orbital debris.

In an email exchange, Starfish co-founder Trevor Bennett told GeekWire that NASA’s SBIR Phase III contract will help his company clear the way for Otter.

“The undertaking of this project is in alignment with Starfish’s technology maturation trajectory, which includes the development of an Otter vehicle, anticipated to be operational for on-orbit tasks as soon as 2025,” he said.

Bennett said the contract “aims to explore a potential mission to examine multiple debris objects in orbit.”

“This type of mission would entail rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) and the detailed characterization of the debris,” he said. “Before any disposal mission can commence, an inspection acts as a preliminary step. It’s essential to first inspect the object, gather relevant data and pinpoint potential docking sites.”

An orbital inspection mission like the one envisioned by Starfish “can serve as a valuable precursor to many missions, including active debris removal,” Bennett said.

The contract’s monetary value wasn’t announced. If everything goes the way Starfish hopes, the biggest payoff is likely to come in the form of future opportunities.


“NASA sees our collaboration efforts building toward an actual flight demonstration to prove out rendezvous and proximity operations capability,” Bennett said. “This three-month concept study contract term has the potential for a follow-on multimillion-dollar on-orbit demonstration mission contract.”

Source: Geek Wire

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