Boeing Lands Contract for Small Classified Satellite

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WASHINGTON — Boeing reported a 5 percent revenue increase in its Network & Space Systems division, to nearly $2 billion, during the first quarter of 2013 and also said it landed a small-satellite contract with an undisclosed customer. 

Commercial satellite programs, along with NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, were the primary drivers of the division’s growth compared with the same period last year, Boeing officials said in a press release and during an April 24 conference call with analysts.

Boeing provided no details of the small-satellite contract in the press release or conference call. Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball later said the contract was classified and declined to elaborate.

For the three months ending March 31, Boeing Network & Space Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., reported $1.96 billion in revenue, compared with $1.87 billion during the same period last year. In addition to the NASA and commercial work, the company cited a $51 million GPS modernization contract, announced Feb. 12, and a Jan. 26 successful flight test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense missile defense interceptor as contributing factors to its growth. 

In a written response to questions, Ball said Boeing delivered one commercial satellite during the quarter, Intelsat’s IS-27 satellite carrying a hosted UHF military communications payload that was subsequently destroyed in a launch failure. Boeing had 11 commercial satellites in the production pipeline during the quarter, she said.

Though known primarily as a maker of large satellites for government and commercial customers, Boeing has been increasingly active in the small-satellite market in recent years. The company has built numerous cubesats — cube-shaped satellites measuring 10 centimeters on a side — for the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and also has introduced a new Phoenix line of small satellites weighing up to 1,000 kilograms.

During an interview in early April, officials with Boeing Phantom Works, the company’s advanced development arm, said they had yet to land a customer for the Phoenix product line, which features common avionics and is designed to support missions ranging from short-duration experiments to operational multiyear missions. But the military, which is considering new, low-cost ways of fielding space capabilities in an era of flat-to-declining budgets, is a clear target market.

Boeing in 2010 won a three-year contract with the NRO, whose programs are usually classified, to supply 20 to 50 Colony 2 cubesats costing about $250,000 apiece. The initial order was for 10 firm cubesats, with plans to order another 10 in 2011, NRO officials said.

In a written response to questions, NRO spokeswoman Loretta DeSio said the agency has not placed any recent cubesat orders with Boeing. “The NRO has not initiated a new contract with Boeing, and has not purchased anything beyond the 20 Colony 2 cubesats delivered under the 2010 contract,” she said.

In an August 2011 speech, then-NRO Director Bruce Carlson said the first of the Colony 2 satellites would fly as secondary payloads on the NROL-36 mission. The NRO later said that mission, which launched successfully from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in September 2012, carried 11 cubesats designed to conduct experiments in space weather, communications, maritime tracking and orbital debris mitigation.

DeSio said the next NRO mission featuring cubesats will be the NROL-39 mission expected to launch in December. The mission will include a special adapter similar to the one used in the NROL-36 launch but this time carrying 12 cubesats.

DeSio said the NRO has been working with a number of cubesat developers and has yet to select which ones will fly on the December mission.