MDA restarts satellite servicing business with SES as first customer

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WASHINGTON — After scrapping an attempt at a satellite servicing business six years ago, MDA Corp. launched a new venture June 28 to repair and refuel satellites in orbit using a spacecraft it is building for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Fleet operator SES of Luxembourg has agreed to be the first customer for the venture, called Space Infrastructure Services (SIS) — the same name MDA used in 2011.

Steve Oldham, senior vice president of business development for Space Systems Loral, the U.S. satellite manufacturer MDA bought in 2012, is returning to lead the SIS business that he guided in the early 2010s. In a June 28 interview with SpaceNews, Oldham said MDA canceled its previous in-orbit servicing venture out of a concern that as a Canadian company it would be unable to compete with similar programs underway at NASA and DARPA.

That has all changed. MDA, through its ongoing acquisition of Englewood, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, is transitioning to being a U.S. company, and Palo Alto, California-based SSL has contracts to build the spacecraft platforms for NASA and DARPA’s respective satellite servicing programs, Restore-L and Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS). The RSGS spacecraft will be the servicer for SIS’s business. 

“What I now see is an alignment of what the government wants to do with what the commercial sector can do,” Oldham said. “It’s a mutual benefit.”

That alignment didn’t come easy — Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, sued DARPA in February over the RSGS contract the agency competitively awarded to SSL, arguing that RSGS duplicated privately funded work Orbital ATK was already doing, and unfairly created a new competitor by providing SSL with the robotics payload and a launch vehicle. Orbital ATK is developing a fleet of Mission Extension Vehicles, or MEVs, that can link with satellites for life extension, and has Intelsat as its first customer. Later versions of the MEV would have robotic arms for satellite repair. Orbital ATK chose not to bid on the RSGS contract.

Oldham said he believes a resolution of the lawsuit “is imminent.” The U.S. government filed a motion to dismiss April 11.  

“RSGS’ capability is significantly more advanced than what Orbital’s MEV does,” he said. “It has much more capability. To me these have always been two different programs and two capabilities. If I were Orbital, I would have bid on RSGS.”

Orbital ATK spokeswoman Vicki Cox declined to comment on the formation of SIS, but referred SpaceNews to the lawsuit the company filed in February with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The complaint alleges DARPA had discussed “using a consortium approach, in which various commercial partners would work with DARPA to develop and demonstrate the technology, which would then be available equally to all participants, to maintain fairness in the marketplace.

“Then, in March 2016, DARPA apparently changed course,” Orbital ATK wrote, arguing that the agency’s May 2016 bid solicitation for a single awardee was “ in direct violation of the National Space Policy.”

DARPA has been funding satellite-servicing technology for more than 14 years through various programs that have grown into RSGS. After a launch expected in 2021, DARPA and SSL are to perform a series of demonstrations with the RSGS spacecraft including in-orbit assembly, repair, inspection, relocation and refueling. Oldham estimated these activities will take approximately six months, following which SIS can use the spacecraft for the remainder of its life.

“The-15 year life with the flexibility of being able to do missions very quickly inside a two-week period, means that over the duration of the business plan we have the capability to do lots and lots of servicing missions,” he said.

As part of the agreement, the U.S. government would have access to satellite servicing from the RSGS spacecraft at a reduced price.

MDA is taking a minority share of SIS, with the majority owned by the Silicon Valley-based investment firm Finance Technology Leverage LLC (FTL), along with other U.S. investors. SIS awarded SSL a $228 million contract to build the servicer spacecraft. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and MDA’s Robotics Division are partners on manufacturing the spacecraft.

“On-orbit refueling and repairing of spacecraft is a critical step in humanity’s march toward a vibrant and exciting frontier,” FTL Managing Partner Ray Conley said in a June 28 statement. “We believe that SSL has assembled the world’s premier team to make SIS the leaders in this vital new arena.”

Oldham said the RSGS servicer will have two robotic arms and will be able to rendezvous with essentially any spacecraft. SIS will likely need just one servicer spacecraft to begin with, he said, but could field more if the market demand was there. He said the servicer will also be upgradable, meaning SSL could add new features over time.

“We have the ability to send up an additional tool, rendezvous with that tool, and use that. Similarly if we run out of propellant, we have the ability to refuel ourselves,” he said.

Looking long term, Oldham said SIS could use servicer spacecraft to assemble and augment satellites in space, adding or removing payloads to allow operators to refresh their satellites based on future demands.

“Satellite in-orbit servicing is of utmost importance to next-generation architectures for communications satellites. It enables satellite operators like us to have more flexibility in managing our fleet and meeting our customers’ demands,” Martin Halliwell, SES’s chief technology officer said in a June 28 statement. “After witnessing the due diligence of SSL’s and MDA’s technical expertise, we are confident that its new venture is the best partner in the refuelling mission field, and will be able to help SES get more value out of an on-orbit satellite.”