Kent, Wash.-based Starfish Space says it’s been awarded $1.8 million by AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force, to support continued development of the company’s Cephalopod software for satellite guidance, navigation and control.
The award builds on previous collaborations between Starfish and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Technically speaking, the contract is known as a Tactical Funding Increase, or TACFI. Ari Juster, strategy and operations lead at Starfish, said it was awarded as a follow-up to a $1.7 million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research contract that the startup received in 2021.
In a news release, Starfish co-founder Austin Link said he was “excited to continue our collaboration with AFRL.”
“Cephalopod can serve as a key technology enabling future servicing missions to benefit satellite operators, and we have found the AFRL team to be great partners in supporting its development,” Link said.
Cephalopod is a software platform that enables satellites powered by electric propulsion systems to rendezvous, conduct proximity operations and execute docking maneuvers with other objects in space autonomously. The software is built into Otter Pup, a demonstration spacecraft that was sent into low Earth orbit in June.
Otter Pup was designed to test Cephalopod and Starfish’s other innovations under real-world orbital conditions. But shortly after its deployment from Launcher’s Orbiter SN3 space tug, the spacecraft experienced an anomaly that set it spinning at an extreme rate. It wasn’t clear whether Otter Pup could execute its planned rendezvous and re-docking with the space tug.
The Starfish team has been working for more than a month to “de-tumble” the satellite in hopes of rescuing the mission. “The satellite is still alive, and we remain in communication with it, though there are many challenges we are still working on,” Juster told GeekWire in an email.
Juster said the newly announced contract will complement the Otter Pup mission and enable Starfish to make substantial enhancements in the Cephalopod platform. “The initial period of performance will be 18 months, and though it will initially run in parallel to the Otter Pup mission, performance of this contract is not dependent on the status of Otter Pup,” he said.
Starfish’s long-term plan calls for building a full-featured satellite known as the Otter that could be used to service other satellites in orbit to extend their operating lives — or push them down to be deorbited when their work is done. The company was co-founded in 2019 by Link and Trevor Bennett, who previously worked for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in Kent.
The startup has attracted more than $21 million in investment, including a $14 million Series A funding round that was announced in March. In addition to the work for the Air Force Research Laboratory, Starfish has also won contracts from NASA and the U.S. Space Force’s SpaceWERX program.