Which is the new final frontier — the space above us or the oceans below us? In the case of Starfish Space, it may be a little of both. The depths of the sea and the far reaches of satellite-bearing low Earth orbit have been combined in a solution-oriented format by the Seattle-based space company. Their mission is to develop spacecraft that can solve two main problems in space — how to create longevity for satellites through a servicing model and how to retire and remove satellites at the end of their lifetimes.
It is estimated now that 5,000 satellites are orbiting the earth. By some estimates, that number could increase to over 100,000 by 2030. The satellites are complex machines that provide the world with commercial services, in many cases, such as communications, aerial photography, weather, climate monitoring, internet, and data collection. They are owned publicly and privately and can cost millions to produce and launch. They typically have an expiration date on their effectiveness and operability.
Starfish Space, a Seattle, Washington startup, leverages ocean-related naming in its systems and intellectual property. The company was founded in 2019 by former Blue Origin engineers Trevor Bennett and Austin Link.
Both are educated in engineering and aerospace and are fond of sea creatures and their names.
The company’s first satellite, Otter Pup, was announced in November 2022 and is slated to launch in mid-2023. From a fundamental standpoint, Otter Pup will launch into space on a rocket and be deployed by another satellite.
Once released by this satellite, Otter Pup will drift several kilometers away, and then use its onboard electric propulsion system to turn around and rendezvous with the same satellite that deployed it. Otter Pup will utilize a unique capture mechanism powered by electrostatic adhesion to dock with the satellite for initial proof of concept and then undock from the satellite to run further tests.
Once Otter Pup helps prove out Starfish’s core technologies, the company will begin deploying full-scale Otter servicing vehicles to serve various customers in space. As the business grows and commercial contracts are secured to service multi-million-dollar satellites and dispose of dead satellites or other space debris, the company will continue to scale up the number of Otters in space. Otter mammals in a group are called a bevy, family, lodge, or romp, so pay attention to the fleet of Otters by Starfish Space as it grows.
It is a unique business model because it is a servicing business solving a problem for satellite owners in space. But conversely, like most successful businesses, it is a business model that promulgates success through the replication of service.
Starfish Space acquired funding in September 2021 with an infusion of $7M. According to an article by Alan Boyle for GeekWire, “The seed funding round was co-led by NFX and MaC Venture Capital, with participation from PSL Ventures, Boost VC, Liquid2 Ventures and Hypothesis.”
Jonathan Kneller, project execution for Starfish Space, stated that the funding allowed them to “go on a hiring spree,” which he said is critical to their success.
The employee roster looks like the best and brightest lineup in the industry. Strategy and Operations Lead Ari Juster oversees business development and most recently worked for the NFL. Of the company’s rapid pace of hiring, Juster said that he “almost feels like a veteran at this point,” although he joined just a year ago.
Starfish’s 25 current employees have flight algorithms; space robotics; human factors and space policy; and mechanical, aeronautical, and astronautical engineering credentials. Thank heavens for the business and operations folks in the bunch, who can write about what they do and make deals.
Juster said, “Starfish is an incredible team of genuine humans; one of our primary visions is to build a company where everyone can live and work with joy.” He said he came to the company because he wanted a job where he could have a tangibly positive impact on the world. He added, “Starfish is a chance to work on breakthrough technology that can fundamentally change how humans can go into space. We must build our capabilities as a species to continue to expand our presence in space, and we hope the technology we are developing can be a key part of that.”
Kneller is excited to be a part of the company because, “It’s a cool and collaborative industry.”
With the infusion of capital, hiring credible employees, and developing crucial technology, they feel the company is making great progress toward its mission.
The future and customers for Starfish Space
There is already a need for the Otter to execute its mission to service satellites and retire dead satellites. Satellites are being launched rapidly by commercial companies and governmental entities, and increasingly crowded orbits pose a risk to all involved.
According to Kneller, a servicing vehicle like the Otter, with its core technologies, could be a breakthrough. Like most businesses, he said there is likely to be increasing value in the ability to service a satellite upon a customer’s request in a rapid or “on-demand” fashion. He said that initially, “The primary missions are life extension and debris removal … in the future, we could use our technology for missions like satellite repair and assembly.” He added, “The goal would be to have dozens of Otters in orbit,” which would service satellites as needed. Otter’s small size and rapid availability will maximize its commercial viability.
Of the debris removal mission, he noted that the satellites in a constellation, when broken or malfunctioning, need to be removed from the constellation so that they don’t damage other satellites. The Otter would be able to conduct this task to pull it out of orbit to “burn up” in the atmosphere.
Customers may operate satellites focused on a wide variety of use cases, and there are likely to be “tons of commercial and government customers [in low-Earth orbit],” Kneller said.
Launching and functionality of the Otter
SpaceX has the market cornered on satellite launches today. But other players are emerging, such as Rocket Lab and the upcoming Ariane 6 rocket. As many satellite companies are coming to market, there will likely be an increasing need for launch capacity. Starfish is not a launch company and plans to rely on partners for Otters’ rides to orbit.
The focus instead will be on making their satellite servicing technology functional and safe. For example, they need to be able to dock with a moving target safely. Kneller said that satellites in low-Earth orbit are traveling at 7,000 meters per second, and “To maneuver near a satellite that costs millions to build, it requires reliable autonomous software to dock.”
The technology is developing, including the capture mechanism and guidance, navigation, and control software. Starfish Space is comprised of former Blue Origin and NASA engineers working together to solve these specific problems within the evolving space ecosystem. Kneller noted that “So many startups came from Blue Origin and SpaceX engineering — for a space startup, it is important to have technical founders — many space companies are perceived to be a bit crazy. It helps to have Austin and Trevor leading the way at Starfish.” Kneller said they are good people to work for.
Starfish Space is memorable because of the clever naming of the products. But the company is much more than an Earth-based business with an ocean theme. They are explorers looking toward a future in space that is still to be defined. Like ocean exploration and our understanding of Earth’s sea creatures, Starfish Space is boldly going into a new final frontier.
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