Space Force and Starfish Space lay out their roadmap for satellite docking mission

The U.S. Space Force says a Pentagon partnership with Tukwila, Wash.-based Starfish Space will result in a “first-of-its-kind docking mission” aimed at adding to the maneuverability of national security assets on orbit.

Starfish Space’s $37.5 million contract for a demonstration of the startup’s Otter satellite docking spacecraft was awarded two weeks ago, but the Space Force’s Space Systems Command released further details about the project today.

The Space Systems Command said its Assured Access to Space program will be working in partnership with Starfish Space as well as the Air Force Research Laboratory’s SpaceWERX program, Space Safari and the SSC Commercial Space Office to improve the responsiveness, resilience and strategic flexibility of America’s space assets.

“This project is another step forward in delivering what our warfighters require in sustained space maneuver,” said Col. Joyce Bulson, director of servicing, mobility and logistics in the Assured Access to Space program.

Starfish Space recently tested a small-scale version of its Otter system, known as Otter Pup, after overcoming a string of technical setbacks. The Otter Pup team used the spacecraft’s sensing and guidance system to orchestrate a rendezvous with another satellite in orbit.

The full-scale Otter would be capable of docking with other satellites, either to refuel them or to help them change course in orbit — a capability that the Space Force calls “augmented maneuver.”

“There is a wide range of applications for Starfish Space’s Otter in addition to augmented maneuver, such as station-keeping or life extension, orbital transfer and ultimately orbital disposal, which assures access to key orbital slots while demonstrating responsible norms in space,” Bulson said.

The contract was awarded through the Department of the Air Force’s Strategic Funding Increase program, or STRATFI. Such contracts are structured to leverage private capital investment as a matching source of funds, spread over performance periods of up to four years.

The Otter project will draw upon the $37.5 million in funding from the Space Force as well as $30 million in past and future venture capital investment, Starfish said. The aim of the demonstration mission will be to send an Otter spacecraft to geostationary Earth orbit, or GEO, to dock with and maneuver national security assets. The specific assets to be maneuvered and the detailed plan for operations have not yet been made public.

Starfish will own and operate the Otter vehicle, providing on-orbit services on a commercial basis. Launch could take place by as early as 2026, followed by two years of operation under the terms of the STRATFI contract.

“Starfish looks forward to collaborating with the Space Force to build the capabilities required to enable dynamic space Operations,” Starfish co-founder Trevor Bennett said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “Through this program, we are in a position to deliver a real on-orbit capability on a relevant timeframe.”

Starfish was founded in 2019 by Bennett and Austin Link, both of whom are alumni of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. The startup has received multiple awards from the Space Force and NASA to support the development of its satellite docking system, and last year it raised $14 million in a Series A funding round.