Transcript: Space4U podcast, Trevor Bennett

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, this is Andrew de Naray with the Space Foundation. And you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make space exploration today more accessible to all. Our guest today is Dr. Trevor Bennett. Trevor is a co-founder of Starfish Space, a software robotics, and autonomous space infrastructure company, developing satellite servicing and space debris capture missions.


They’re headquartered in Kent Washington and the Seattle Metro area. Trevor earned his PhD in aerospace from the University of Colorado, where he was a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow. And he was spotlighted in Aviation Week’s 20 20s program. Trevor has worked at both NASA Goddard and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL on robotic missions and for Blue Origin on the New Glenn launch vehicle.


A space tug is a spacecraft that’s used to transfer cargo from one orbit to another that has different energy characteristics. For example, moving a spacecraft from a low Earth orbit to a higher energy orbit like geostationary orbit. To that end, Starfish Space is currently developing the Otter, which is the first small and versatile space tug that will lower costs and increase availability for satellite servicing missions, including life extension, and something that’s a hot topic of conversation and focus for problem solving right now, space debris removal.


Thanks so much for joining us today, Trevor. It’s great to have you on the show. Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you. So first question, have you always been interested in space or what first piqued your interest? Yeah. So, you know, there, there are many that come into the space industry, even to watching rocket launches or finding others that really guide them along the path. For me, mine was a little bit more circuitous.


I actually started off on the floor of my bedroom building Legos and doing robotics in that sense and having kind of the local mentors and kind of parents in the engineering fields, looking at nuclear engineering or looking at autonomous robotics in that respect space was not really on the mind.


Fortunately, I had a grandfather who was a private pilot and kind of said, Hey, flying is this really interesting thing. How about you go in that direction as well? And so had the good fortune of kind of combining the two and thinking that aerospace engineering would be the way to doing robotics as well as flight.


And over the course of time found a greater and greater affinity for space and, and really am quite fortunate to be in the space industry now. That’s great. So when you were in school, uh, pursuing aerospace degrees, did that kind of turn you towards space during that time? Yeah, precisely.


Yeah. I actually entered into my undergrad with the expectation that I was going to do autonomous aerial vehicles. And it really was the proximity to some impressive people working at NASA, the proximity to professors, and then just the experiences of the hands-on activities that we often find ourselves doing.


And in undergraduate engineering degrees of building our own airplanes or building our own rockets, that really said, you know what, there’s something to this space aspect. There, there really is a growing opportunity here. And admittedly a little bit of a nerd on the side and have the opportunity to go watch Star Trek and theorize about what could be as opposed to what is, and, and space really ignites that imagination like nothing else.


Perfect segue, uh, you’ve had quite a career path already with stops at NASA and Blue Origin along the way. What are some of your most memorable moments or experiences you gained in those roles? Absolutely. Yeah, very fortunate. And one thing that you did mention during the intro that I want to say a special thanks to is the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship program that provides graduate students the opportunity to go work at a variety of NASA centers and really kind of explore a transition of both the academic work into a real application. And that for me, was an opportunity to go work on some interplanetary missions.


And, and a notable experience was actually sitting at JPL. They have what’s called the Center of the Universe. This is where their mission control is for the, you know, their satellites that are going interplanetary, the robots that are landing on other planets. And so when you see that screenshot from JPL, where everybody’s sitting behind a console and then suddenly jumps up with joy, That is their Center of the Universe.


And this is where I would, I would spend my lunch breaks, just sitting there watching satellite feeds of rovers and satellite feeds of satellites that have left our solar system and just watching the data pour in. And that really was kind of one of the inspirational moments to that whole program. Kind of seeing again, the, yeah, the ingenuity of humans.


And then for Blue Origin, you know, another experience there was watching the hot fire test of a BE-4 engine and having, and again, this amazing group of people around who’ve worked long hours trying to build this thing up, having on the big screen, suddenly engine come alive and throw fire out the back in the right direction.


Oh, what a, what an exciting opportunity. And that’s really what I think the aerospace industry is about, is bringing people from various backgrounds, various experiences, and different technical specialties together to really bring something new into the world and really kind of move us forward. Very powerful and inspiring.


Uh, and then what led you to established Starfish and focus specifically on these aspects of the space ecosystem? That’s a great question. Uh, I would say it was equal parts, ignorance and excitement. Starting a company is a crazy thing to do, leaving your paying job, to go sit in the library and try to imagine what a, what you should be doing at that time.


It was. Was, uh, that was the ignorance part. The excitement part, I would say though, really comes down to being quite fortunate in having the right co-founder really being emboldened by the conversations with my co-founder Austin [Link]. And going back to one of my memories at Blue, I actually met him on the first day.


He was my Blue Guide, which is an opportunity to bring somebody into the company, share what the company is, what it can do, kind of what your role is going to be. And I had the good fortune of working with Austin for the next two years on a daily basis. But even more than that had the opportunity to really become friends with them.


And we got to talking and we’re saying, okay, look, where’s the space industry going, what is needed here? And it came down over and over again to transportation that, yeah, the space industry is exciting right now with all these launches and satellites flying and record numbers. But what happens next?


What’s the next step of the journey? And that is moving things around in space. That’s transitioning between planets, that’s building infrastructure in a place that was previously just the fingertips of our reach. And so that’s kind of why Austin, I started talking said, yes, There really is an opportunity here to go build a company around this next step in the evolution of space technology and evolution of our space environment.


And Starfish is the product of that. We have the opportunity to really hatch this idea. And then over the last year and a half, talk with customers, talk with ourselves, talk with mentors and really kind of build to this vision of the Otter space tug and in-orbit transportation.


So space debris has been in the news more lately, obviously, you know, just weeks ago, we heard about the piece of it, you know, Chinese rocket stage plummeting, uncontrolled towards Earth.


Um, we’ve been launching stuff into orbit for about 65 years now with very little concern about cleanup. Things are getting a bit congested out there and then it’ll become even more so. You know, tens of thousands of Starlink satellites being launched in the coming years. Uh, other companies making similar moves.


Can you explain for our listeners why space debris is a critical issue from your perspective? That’s a great question. And I think this really comes down to what we would review orbits as, as a scarce natural resource, um, and subject to the tragedy of commons and other things. But, but really if we think about space as a resource, and we think about how we’re managing that resource, this is where space debris finds its greatest argument.


And that is if we enjoy our GPS on our phones, if we enjoy the TV that we can get around the clock with multiple channels, our international communications, our ability to do so many new things, that space is opened up that is only made possible by a continued and kind of vigilant use of the space.


And so, as we think about space debris, space debris becomes a threat to that. It becomes something that we have to manage and to regulate. And so, as we think about what might drive space debris in terms of our thinking at large is how do we best manage it so that we continue to do the things that we want to do.


And that’s probably the way I would encourage many to think about space debris is it’s not necessarily just a problem that needs to be solved in isolation. It really is part of this collective use and opportunity that space provides. And a natural extension for, as we continue to develop. And as we expand our reach, it is a good responsible use of the environment to, to move forward and, and manage it well.


So let’s talk about what Starfish does and the various components. Uh, so .. Starfish, Nautilus, Cephalopod, Otter, um, you have some great maritime inspired names for your product names. What’s the background story behind that theme? Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So it’s, again comes down to Austin and I having a, a meeting in my living room, as we were thinking about what a company would be and what it could be.


And that’s where we started thinking about names. Okay. We’re thinking about this transportation infrastructure, we’re thinking about this new step in our evolution of the in-space infrastructure. What comes to mind as we think about that, and really what inspired us was the connection to Earth’s oceans and the connection to our planetary beginnings here.


And so Starfish was kind of a natural extension of that. There are many other personal reasons for, for the name Starfish, having a strong affinity, but here we now have a company that acknowledges that early beginning and acknowledges the next and challenging step as we move into space. Now what a great way to have a fun theme to share and to get behind.


It really is an invigorating and kind of somewhat unique within the space industry. We find epic names that often dominate the feeds and, and for us, we are joyful people. We’re goofy people and it just jives with our sense of self to be called Starfish. And then by extension starting to find the names that really do have meaning for us that that are associated.


So Otter, Otter’s up there and you’re well known for holding hands while out in seas drifting waters. Here, we have a vehicle that can go and connect with another vehicle and provide that safe harbor and go ahead and provide life extension services. Nautilus for instance has an incredible grip strength. And here we’re thinking about our capture mechanism, and so kind of absolutely named thinking about how we can hold on to a variety of objects.


And, and Cephalopod, right? We think about intelligent species in the ocean. Octopuses, and others all fall within this category. And so it, it’s kind of nice for us to be able to group in our thinking and, and kind of unify it under this nautical thing.


I love it. That’s a great story. So, um, we’d mentioned Otter there as being the space tug. Uh, so how did you create a smaller space tug? How has it more versatile and how does it lower costs? A great set of questions, right? One always driven by how are we actually going to change things rather than just be dreamers about it.


And we think that from Starfish’s point of view, we have two technologies that we think can really change the way spaceflight is done. And let’s take a step back and think about what is on-orbit service saying, what does debris removal look like in the mission space? So as a vehicle like Otter flies up to another orbital object, maybe this is a piece of debris or a satellite that needs some assistance.


There is this next critical step in a process, which is the rendezvous proximity operations in docking. So that is the step of getting closer, the step of operating close, and then actually the last step of making physical contact. And so in those steps, you can imagine if your vehicle is worth $400 million, you want somebody to be very careful about how they do those final steps.


And that’s why this RPOD — or, rendezvous proximity and operations and docking is so critical because those steps are the ones where you have potential to have large impact. And then hopefully not bad impact right and creating new debris? But have that careful connection that really provides assurances for your customer.


And so when we think about the technologies that help get us there, one is the Cephalopod software that allows us to do all of those key trajectory steps. With exclusively electric propulsion. Why electric propulsion? Because this is 10 times better gas mileage. And so if we can do it with just electric propulsion, we can get rid of a lot of external hardware that’s needed for current docking systems.


And that shedding of extra hardware allows us to bring the size of the vehicle way down and still provide the same capabilities. And then the last part of that is actually the physical capturing, and that’s where Nautilus comes in the ability to grab any kind of surface. Any kind of structure allows us the versatility to not be just one customer specific, but really customer available and, and really reach a broad set of individuals and needs whether that they can be life, extension or debris removal.


And so by combining these two, we now have a vehicle like Otter that can approach variety of objects, service, a variety of objects, and do so. With the smaller platform that really benefits from that improved gas mileage that electric propulsion brings. So, uh, Otter is the tug and then Cephalopod is kind of the software that controls and facilitates that.


And then, um, and then Nautilus, how does that operate and adhere to different kinds of surfaces of objects on orbit? That’s a great question and I’ll share some limited details here, but with the caveat that we look forward to demonstrating this in space next year. And so we would love to share more as we come up on that, I will say that the way we’re doing it right now in the lab testing, as we have this platform that comes over slides and actually interfaces with a variety of surface materials, whether this be solar panels or materials that provide thermal insulation to satellites.


And so we can demonstrate that that versatility it’s there, but happy to share more in just, uh, in a few months to, as we gear up for our next test, following this one, that we’re going to fly here in the next, next few weeks a month. Understood.


And so being that space debris capture is an increasingly hot topic, I assume many companies are racing to develop technologies for this purpose. What sets Starfish apart from those other companies? Yeah. And you already started touching on this a little bit. What sets Starfish apart is really the ability to go to a smaller vehicle that is the unit economics of on-orbit services.


So if we kind of look at the landscape right now and all credit to those that are currently flying missions, like mission extension vehicle from Northrop Grumman, that is a vehicle that has now been able to capture, and then start assisting an operations to GEO spacecraft, um, Astro Digital, uh, as you know, our partner and helping build ours, but even Astro Scale and their flight of Elsa D is showing that they could potentially do LEO debris removal.


Now these missions while incredible in their own right, still do not fully utilize what electric propulsion can provide to a vehicle. And so that’s really, one of our big advances is saying we can have an exclusively electric propulsion vehicle. And then the knowledge and expertise of course, to implement that is kind of what sets Starfish apart.


Now that’s our technology roadmap that gets us there, but really what matters to a customer there is, then if we have these smaller vehicles, if we’re focusing on this newer technology, uh, and the ability to deploy faster, it means we get down to more affordable and available vehicles. That’s I think what really sets us apart, moving away from a vehicle that is just single purpose or launched for a specific customer.


Otter imagines a constellation of these satellites that are always orbiting, always ready. And it’s more of an on-demand service. You can text up Starfish and say, Hey, we need your help. And a couple of weeks later, we’re flying in with our new vehicle from that constellation to provide that service much more of like the Uber of space or the Lyft in space.


Right. Rather where you can have this on-demand transportation as needed. That’s where we envision Starfish going. I think that’s really, what’s going to change and move the needle here. That’s awesome. And as I said, a minute ago, there’s about 65 years worth of detritus floating in orbit. Uh, about what percentage of that would you say is currently inactive, just taking up space and endangering other active satellites?


That is a great question. And I will provide my best guess of that number from a little bit of research here, but my interpretation is around 80 to 90% of that mass in orbit is, is formerly operable satellites, debris, flecks of paint flying around. It really is just a collection of mass up there that has been used up.


Now, if we think about why we got to this point, you know, there’s a couple of notable things, but we started off with our international thinking of spaceflight as two countries that could both go to orbit and do so with very focused and limited access. And that’s just not the world we live in now — everybody can launch into orbit there’s rocket companies that are providing new access to space on like seemingly a weekly basis.


There’s new countries thinking about how they can benefit from launching their own space assets. And so our thinking is, is really what needs to change here. As we look at this large, massive debris, and we think about perhaps what we would like to focus on, which is the end of life, right? We think a lot about beginning of life, how do we launch it?


How do we build it? But now looking at the full lifecycle of satellites, not just leaving them up there, but yeah. Perhaps looking forward to the future of recycling in space or providing in-space manufacturing. There, there key steps that we can do right now to start managing that large population and really kind of transition from just an orbital graveyards to really, again, managing our resources and space.


Cleaning up that space debris, obviously that costs money. That’s why you got a business providing that service. Uh, as debris removal becomes a more common practice, who do you think will bear the financial burden, uh, to clean up zombie satellites and other orphan debris from years past.


That’s a great question. And so, as we both kind of have circled around this, it’s a little bit of the tragedy of the commons, right? There is this easier access to space and everybody has a self-interest to get up there and use it, but then what happens next? Right? There are a couple of ways that we think. Uh, there are patents forward to go ahead and fund some of this removal.


And the first and foremost for us that we see is as a company, there always has to be a financial incentive to really kind of affect that change at large rate to, to be paired with any other incentive, right. Being a good steward of space is good in its own right. But insufficient in terms of actually affecting that change.


And so if we look at satellite life extension for one, just allowing operators to make new choices, if we think about our cars that we drive around on the road, if you have your seven year warranty and six and a half years rolls around, you’re like, you know what, it’s time for me to just put this car in a parking lot.


Drain the remaining gas, unplug the battery and go buy a new one. Right. Or even just leave it in the lane of traffic, because there’s not enough traffic right now that that doesn’t help anybody, right? And it’s just kind of adds to the problem. And so we think about what might incentivize somebody to continue to drive their car.


Well, the fact that you have AAA or a tow truck on hand, that you can, can keep driving that car until literally the wheels fall off and you’ll still be in good shape to make it to work that day or two to clear the roads. That’s really the financial incentive here, allowing operators to transition their thinking to say, what more can I do with my satellite rather than when do I have to stop using it?


And then in the debris fields, if we think about adding more, we still want those lanes of traffic to be opened and traversable. And so as we hear some of these companies wanting to launch hundreds or thousands of satellites into orbit and building these massive constellations, they have a self-interest to maintain those orbits.


They have a self-interest to make sure that any new satellites they add or any new capabilities they wish to service are accessible because they’ve cleared out their old satellites. So they were able to move and bring in a new one. And so those are the two reasons, because then we really see some, some early traction here, and then, uh, hopefully use those as stepping stones to provide more capability and more services, again, like manufacturing and recycling.


Okay, that makes sense. All right. I saw you guys recently just days ago, got some press that you’re teaming up with a Benchmark Space Systems to work on an orbital refueling system for satellites, which ties in by using your Cephalopod software. Could you tell us a bit about how that’ll?


Oh yeah, that’s a very exciting step for us. I think as a young space company here getting to orbit is, is a challenging thing, but we found a kind of a clever way to, to navigate and really a credit to the evolving space industry. So a little bit of a background on what this mission is. So this is a joint venture with a variety of different companies that all have a vested interest in flying this mission.


So this is the Tenzing spacecraft. So Orbit Fab has gas stations in space, and they have worked with Astro Digital to build up a satellite that has a variety of customers. And one of those is the benchmark thruster. That’s actually going to fly their thruster technology, and then demonstrate that, and with Orbit Fab providing the gas stations in a space capability, and Starfish has been employed then as part of this overall scope, to be able to provide some early testing of rendezvous proximity operations at docking.


And so we have the good fortune of being on this mission, where we have a vehicle that is able to look forward and start seeing how do we do those services with refueling and then command that vehicle. As Starfish with our software to actually go fly a representative mission.


And so what we’ll do is we’ll go up into orbit. We’ll take control of the vehicle. We’ll pretend there’s, uh, an imaginary spacecraft ahead of us in the orbit and will maneuver or the spacecraft and go dock with this point in space. And actually show that through this whole trajectory that we’re able to observe and navigate and move to this desired point.


And that is so exciting because one being able to demonstrate our software in space makes it real. Like we get to say this software has been tested in space. The other thing that has engineers, and as, as a company, as we develop improving our capabilities as part of this. So we get to look at real orbital data and come back to our lab and say, Look, our simulations match.


Our simulations, provide a real representation of what we’re going to see in orbit. And so now we can do even more ambitious projects with our simulation framework and trust that once we move over to space, the real environment. That we’ll have something that can, with a higher confidence that it works.


And so validating that simulation as part of that step. And the last is as a budding space company, it’s always great to kind of showcase that we can do real things and to help bring others along in our journey, because what makes this possible is really kind of the support and backing of both financial backers, as well as the community at large, to go, go do these things.


And, uh, you kind of touched on this probably a bit already since this, I think that partnership is part of your upcoming launch, but you do have an upcoming in-orbit tests, uh, launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next month. Uh, things must be ramping up for that. And, uh, what do we have to look forward to there? Uh, what are your expected outcomes?


Yeah, that’s a great question. So for us getting to space here as part of that rideshare program, really an exciting time for New Space, right? The ability for a small company to work with a variety of others, to share some of these costs to get on a ride share program is phenomenal.


So what this next step allows us to do and go flying in space, uh, and, and what we’re going to start sharing is, Okay, look, here’s this spacecraft flying around, approaching these desired targets, capturing this imaginary point in space. We’re ready for the next step. Right? And so what we are looking forward to sharing is look, our Cephalopod software works. It provides this critical part of the capabilities for two different thruster types. So right now we’re aiming to do electric propulsion is our primary and exclusive choice on Otter.


But a lot of vehicles still use chemical propulsion. And so the difference between those two is, the electrical — you have this highly charged field that you throw particles and incredibly fast paced out the back, low thrust, like a few houseflies on a piece of paper, but you can do that for long periods of time with great efficiency. Chemical is the beautiful thing where we just see fire coming out the backend, right? And so very different engine types, very different trajectories between the two. This vehicle has both. We’re going to be able to showcase an ability to do on-orbit trajectory design on-orbit rendezvous, proximity operations in talking with both chemical propulsion, as well as electric propulsion.


And that is a capability that has. A variety of applications beyond Otter. And so our ability to go and showcase that means that there are opportunities for us to do our next demo mission, uh, you know, next year, as well as, uh, go service some, some other customer needs here in the near term. That’s exciting.


Final question. Your website refers to Starfish Space, offering logistics, autonomy, and robotics infrastructure for the developing “ Offworld Economy.” And we’ve kind of touched on some of this, but it kind of almost sounds like science fiction a bit. Um, so what are your projections regarding how this future space economy will develop and like what kind of milestones can we look forward to become reality in the coming years? And when?


An excellent question. And I would love to have spot on projections, right? And know which investments to make now. Uh, but part of, I think, what, what Starfish is positioning itself to do, and I think many others are positioning themselves to do is shape that future. And so if you ask about. What those steps look like?


I think we’re finding more and more companies finding their way to space more and more countries finding their way to space. We’re going to start seeing a collaboration and interaction around Earth. This is space stations. This is people going on. Tourist vacations. This is building new structures and new.


Services for Earth that we will look forward to. And then this is extending the reach to the Moon to Mars and beyond it is the future to grab and the future to go create here. And as a science fiction nerd myself, you know, it’s, uh, as much as we talk about this, it becomes kind of a cliche term, like turning science fiction into science fact, right?


This is all about the journey for building up those footholds that we can build for each other and then, you know, ratchet up the whole industry at large. So our contribution is to make sure that we can move goods and services around. And then I would love to see an orbital shipyard. Where we could build spacecraft that are going to take us to other planets and maybe to other solar systems.


And if we are able to provide some component of that industry and do in-space mining in-space recycling in space manufacturing, I think that’s really where their space industry kicks off and then starts doing amazing things. That’s awesome.


Well, Trevor, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us today, we fully support and appreciate your efforts to tackle the issue of space debris capture, and we’ll look forward to celebrating Starfish’s big successes in the coming years. Excellent. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me and appreciate the opportunity to share more about Starfish and look forward to sharing many more and exciting things as we, uh, as we progress and, and help shape the future.


And that concludes this episode of Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review on Podbean, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


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Space4U Podcast: Trevor Bennett – Cofounder of Starfish Space