Starfish Space pulls Otter Pup servicing vehicle back from 'the brink of death'

Against all odds, Starfish Space has managed to pull its first orbital mission back from the brink of catastrophe, with the startup saying Tuesday that it has regained control over the Otter Pup spacecraft that had been rapidly tumbling through space.

The Kent, Washington–based startup said it will now move ahead with an “extensive checkout” of the spacecraft’s onboard systems and a search for a new partner for its rendezvous, proximity and docking (RPD) mission.

The mission seemed doomed to failure back in June. Starfish was one of several companies that hitched a ride to orbit on a space tug operated by Launcher (now owned by Vast). But shortly after reaching low Earth orbit, Launcher mission commanders made the decision to emergency deploy all onboard payloads after the space tug experienced a glitch that caused it to start to rapidly tumble.

While that emergency deployment gave Otter Pup a chance to survive, it sent the spacecraft tumbling, too — at a rotation rate of excess of almost one full rotation per second, as opposed to the rate of one or two degrees per second that spacecraft are designed for.

While the rotation rate started to slowly decline on its own, due to electromagnetic and atmospheric drag, the company realized it wouldn’t be enough to fully slow the spacecraft. So, they got to work conceiving, developing, and eventually executing a plan to use the spacecraft’s magnetic torque rods to essentially “push off” from Earth’s atmosphere and gradually decrease tumble.

Starfish engineers managed the feat against some challenging conditions. In a statement released Tuesday, the startup details how Otter Pup experienced a series of low power events that “pushed it to the brink of death.” Starfish said it worked with its mission partners Astro Digital, the satellite chassis manufacturer, and Advanced Solutions Inc., a Rocket Lab subsidiary, to reorient the spacecraft so it could recharge itself.

Provided that Otter Pup receives a full bill of health, Starfish now needs to find another partner for its mission. It had originally planned to demonstrate Otter Pup’s RPD capabilities with Launcher’s space tug — though that is obviously no longer possible.