Judge rejects motion to dismiss SSL-Orbital ATK suit

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge denied a motion by Orbital ATK to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year by Space Systems Loral seeking damages for alleged unauthorized access to information about its satellite servicing technologies.

In an order published Feb. 2, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson denied a motion by Orbital ATK to dismiss four counts in SSL’s lawsuit seeking damages for unauthorized access. The judge granted a motion to dismiss two other counts, concluding they were superseded by laws invoked in the other counts.

The case stems a December 2016 incident where NASA officials notified SSL that there had been unauthorized access to SSL documents related to a NASA “Tipping Point” technology development award on a server at the Langley Research Center. SSL had received that award earlier in the year to work on technologies related to in-space satellite servicing.

That unauthorized access was traced to an Orbital ATK employee, who was subsequently fired by the company. However, SSL said in its suit that as many as six Orbital ATK employees viewed the documents. SSL filed the suit in March 2017 seeking an injunction to prevent Orbital ATK from using any of those documents in its own projects, as well as “other and further relief the Court may deem just and appropriate.”

The counts retained in the suit include violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Defend Trade Secrets Act, misappropriation of trade secrets and violation of the Virginia Computer Crimes Act.

An SSL executive was pleased with the outcome. “SSL must defend its intellectual property rights against misappropriation and we therefore appreciate the Court’s decision,” said Michelle Kley, senior vice president and general counsel for Maxar Technologies, the parent company of SSL, in a statement to SpaceNews.

The order was the first filing in the case in more than six months, and the order did not indicate when the case would move to trial.

Both Orbital ATK and SSL are pursuing satellite servicing systems. Orbital ATK is developing its Mission Extension Vehicle, designed to attach to satellites and take over maneuvering. The first such vehicle is scheduled to enter service in 2019 to extend the life of the Intelsat 901 communications satellite.

SSL won a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2017 to develop a more ambitious satellite servicing platform, called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), able to repair and refuel satellites. That award was the subject of a lawsuit by Orbital ATK against DARPA, arguing that the award of the contract violated national space policy. A federal judge dismissed the suit in July 2017.