In an unprecedented turn of events, Starfish Space, the Kent-based startup, has managed to regain control of its Otter Pup satellite docking system. The system had been rotating chaotically in orbit following its launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in June. The Otter Pup, roughly the size of a dorm-room fridge, was released into space to demonstrate its ability to rendezvous and dock with other spacecraft for servicing. However, the mission took an unexpected turn when the space tug, the Otter Pup was attached to, began to spin rapidly, causing the Otter Pup to tumble uncontrollably.
Despite the initial setback, Starfish co-founder Austin Link and his team have managed to halt the Otter Pup’s spin using an innovative algorithm that leverages the interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and the spacecraft’s magnetized torque rods. The team spent weeks rigorously testing the code in simulated space conditions before uploading it to the Otter Pup. This marked the first time the company has overcome such a unique and extraordinary challenge in space, which Link describes as another proof point of the company’s potential.
Starfish Space Overcomes Satellite Spin, Prepares for Docking Mission
After a near-failure situation in its first orbital mission, Kent, Washington-based startup Starfish Space has successfully halted the tumbling of its Otter Pup satellite docking system, and is now preparing for its next rendezvous mission. Despite the spacecraft spinning at nearly one revolution per second, the recovery process has been deemed a significant achievement for the company.
An Unexpected Challenge
The mission faced issues shortly after the Otter Pup and several other spacecraft were launched into low Earth orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 12. The Otter Pup, comparable in size to a dorm-room fridge, was meant to be deployed from an orbital space tug which would act as its target for a demonstration of its rendezvous and docking capabilities. However, the space tug began to spin rapidly after separating from the Falcon 9 upper stage, leading to the premature release of Otter Pup, which continued to tumble.
A Successful Recovery Effort
To halt the spacecraft’s spin and realign its solar arrays towards the sun, Starfish’s engineers developed an algorithm that utilized the interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and three magnetized torque rods on the Otter Pup. The team devised software code that checked the alignment around 10 times per second and tested it extensively in simulated space conditions.
By the end of July, the team had uploaded the code for a 30-minute test run. Following an encouraging result, a subsequent three-hour run brought the spin rate down to zero. According to Austin Link, Starfish co-founder, the Otter Pup is now stable and no longer spinning.
Collaborative Support and Future Prospects
Starfish’s recovery efforts were supported by Astro Digital, Advanced Solutions Inc., and Vast, along with its Launcher team, all of whom played crucial roles in the mission. Chris Biddy, co-founder and CEO of Astro Digital, lauded the recovery of Otter Pup as a significant accomplishment.
However, the Starfish team now needs to determine whether Otter Pup can function effectively after its spinning ordeal. The company is also in search of another satellite to serve as the mission’s target, given that the original target, Orbiter SN3, is out of contention due to an anomaly it suffered.
While there are still hurdles to overcome, Link views the situation with enthusiasm, highlighting the excitement of solving complex engineering problems. This experience not only serves as a significant technical accomplishment but also provides an opportunity to continue with the Otter Pup mission. If successful, the mission will pave the way for the full-size Otter and the broader aim of regular human interaction with orbiting satellites.