Good morning. As soon as we hit send on this puppy, the Payload team will be stepping away from our keyboards, so to speak, for an all-hands “offsite” to discuss 2023 strategy.
We are a remote company, though, and only half of us will be meeting IRL. So, we’ll in fact very much be in front of our keyboards (and cameras) for multiple hours of Zoom calls. But if we’re slow to respond today, now you know why.
In today's newsletter:
🤖 Starfish + Otter Pup
🛬 X-37B comes home
🗓️ The week ahead
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Starfish Reveals Otter Pup Plans
Starfish Space has revealed its plans for its first space mission in spring 2023. The mission will demonstrate the startup’s satellite docking technology through its Otter Pup spacecraft, and if successful, it will be the first ever satellite docking using electric propulsion.
Starfish 101: The Seattle-based startup has ambitions to enable an in-space economy where inexpensive, easily accessible in-orbit servicing is the norm.
“You can drive your car until the wheels literally fall off. But you can do that because you can go and take it to a mechanic if you need to, or you have a tow truck to get you out of the way in traffic,” Starfish cofounder Trevor Bennett told Payload.
“That's the reliance that we need in space. We have to have the comfort that it will always be there, ready when you need it.”
To date, satellite docking experiments have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Starfish says they can accomplish the task for far cheaper (the company has raised ~$8M in VC to date and won a handful of NASA and DoD contracts). In order to bring costs down, Bennett said its servicer will have to be three things:
- Autonomous. “There's a model right now where it takes 100 people to operate one satellite. Let's get that to one person operating 100 satellites, and constellation operators think about this on a day to day basis,” Bennett said. “But can we do that for the tow trucks? Can we do that for the servicers?”
- Software-driven. “In general, software can develop faster, it can iterate faster, it can also be just a more affordable way than having to build custom hardware,” Bennett said.
- Mostly off-the-shelf. Besides the custom-built capture system, Nautilus, Otter Pup is entirely made from off-the-shelf hardware.
More on Otter Pup: The company’s demonstration mission is slated to launch on Transporter-8 in mid-2023. The mission will deploy Otter Pup, a small test satellite, from Launcher’s Orbiter craft. Otter Pup will keep a safe distance from Orbiter, then slowly draw closer and closer before performing a series of docking maneuvers.
The demonstration will test the three core technologies that Starfish will need before it can build its full servicer, Otter:
- Nautilus, the electrostatic docking mechanism
- Cephalopod, the guidance control software
- Cetacean, the relative navigation software
Combined, these three technologies will enable the company to continue building Otter, the full-size servicer. Starfish is targeting late 2024 or 2025 for the first Otter mission.
Share this with a friend who goes to the aquarium specifically to see otters:
Welcome Home, X-37B
After 908 days in space—and smashing its own previous orbital endurance record in July—the Boeing-built, US Air & Space Force-operated X-37B has returned to Earth. The reusable military spaceplane touched down Saturday at 5:22am at NASA Kennedy’s Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Oh (TV-6), the places you’ll go…
Orbital Test Vehicle-6, as the name suggests, was the experimental spaceplane’s sixth mission. OTV-1, the plane's first mission, lasted 225 days. OTV-6 launched on an Atlas V in May 2020.
- Boeing has two X-37Bs in its fleet. The plane is ~1/4th the size of the Space Shuttle, and can fly anywhere from 150 to 500 miles above Earth.
- The X-37B is designed to push the envelope on reusable spaceflight and long-duration, on-orbit experiments that can be brought home to Earth.
What say the Space Force? “This mission highlights the Space Force's focus on collaboration in space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, within and outside of the Department of the Air Force,” Gen. Chance Saltzman, the USSF’s chief of space operations, said in a news release.
OTV-6 hosted a power-transmitting microwave for the Naval Research Laboratory, dropped off a US Air Force Academy satellite, and also carried NASA materials and space crops experiments. Finally, prior to landing, OTV-6 successfully separated from a service module that A) rode with the spaceplane for the first time and B) boosted the amount of experiments supported on the mission.
“The deliberate manner in which we conduct on-orbit operations—to include the service module disposal—speaks to the United States' commitment to safe and responsible space practices, particularly as the issue of growing orbital debris threatens to impact global space operations,” commented Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.
What next? No word yet on when to expect OTV-7, and what its mission parameters and goals might look like.
+ While we’re here: China’s spaceplane, which has been in space for 100+ days, dropped off a mysterious package into orbit late last month.
Share this with your group chat's biggest spaceplane afficionado:
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In Other News
- CAPSTONE arrived at its lunar orbit at 7:39pm ET last night. The spacecraft is set to perform two additional “clean-up maneuvers” in the next five days.
- ABL Space Systems has secured a launch license for its RS1 rocket. The mission has launch opportunities daily between today and Nov. 21.
- The upper stage of a Long March 6 broke up in LEO, creating a debris cloud of 50+ pieces, per tracking data from the 18th Space Defense Squadron.
- SpaceX purchased a sizable Twitter ad campaign, CNBC reports. The company is set to advertise its Starlink service to Twitter users in Spain and Australia.
- BlueWalker 3’s array has been fully deployed in space, per AST SpaceMobile CEO/Chairman Abel Avellan.
The Week Ahead
All times in Eastern.
Monday, Nov. 14: Gilat Satellite Networks ($GILT) and Sidus Space ($SIDU) will release Q3 earnings before markets open, with AST SpaceMobile ($ASTS) set to report at 5pm.
Tuesday, Nov. 15: The US has three planned spacewalks in a row at the ISS, the first of which will be executed by NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Frank Rubio. The mission will begin at 8:00am and last about seven hours. On the conference front, Space Tech Expo kicks off in Bremen, Germany today and will run through Thursday, Nov. 17.
Wednesday, Nov. 16: NASA will attempt to launch Artemis I at 1:04am and SpaceX will launch a batch of Starlink satellites at 10:22pm
Thursday, Nov. 17: At 6:33pm, SpaceX is set to launch Eutelsat 10B.
The View of Space
Exclosure, a space situational awareness startup, shared these two photos of the BlueWalker-3 satellite with Payload, as seen from its Bay Area imaging site. We added an arrow on the second photo so you don’t have to squint too hard. For a more zoomed-in photo, head to Exclosure’s Twitter.