LONDON — Canada’s MDA Corp. on Nov. 4 said its government has rejected the company’s request to take part in an international competition to provide radar Earth observation satellites to Russia, a competition that now may have narrowed to focus on European bidders.
Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA also said it spent 3 million Canadian dollars ($2.91 million) in the three months ending Sept. 30 performing due diligence in pursuit of a major acquisition that MDA scrapped when the seller raised the price. MDA balked at the new price and withdrew its participation. The company was later purchased by another bidder.
In a Nov. 4 conference call with investors, MDA Chief Executive Daniel E. Friedmann did not identify the target, but industry officials said MDA had been bidding for satellite fleet operator Satmex of Mexico.
Paris-based Eutelsat ultimately purchased Satmex for $831 million in cash and the assumption of $311 million in Satmex debt, a transaction expected to close in early 2014.
An MDA purchase of Satmex on the heels of its billion-dollar acquisition of satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, Calif., would have transformed MDA into a company not dissimilar to SSL’s previous owner, Loral Space and Communications of New York, which has a majority economic stake in Canadian satellite operator Telesat.
Loral’s owners, having sold SSL, are now weighing how to monetize their Telesat investment as well, according to industry officials.
Friedmann said adding a satellite telecommunications service to complement MDA’s hardware manufacturing business remains a company goal. He said the missed acquisition opportunity surfaced before the SSL purchase, which closed in November, before being withdrawn.
It then resurfaced after the SSL purchase. Friedmann said MDA determined that the strategic fit was at least as good after the SSL purchase as it was before.
“We pursued it vigorously as you can see from the expenditure,” Friedmann said. “We were there until the last couple of hours. Then after several rounds of price increases, we pulled out and they concluded with the other party.”
Friedmann said MDA has more than enough to do with integrating SSL and pursuing its growth strategy without proceeding with acquisitions and would not have pursued the deal had MDA not already done the research to determine it would make a good fit.
The Russian government for more than a year has been soliciting interest in prospective bidders on a radar Earth observation system. MDA is under contract to the Canadian government for the three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) and had been viewed as a likely bidder for the Russian work unless the contract was signed as a government-to-government cooperative endeavor.
Astrium GmbH of Germany has also demonstrated its interest in the contract, and German government officials have said they welcome the chance to extend the constellation of the TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X satellites, now in orbit, beyond the single Paz satellite under construction for the Spanish government.
“We have been unable to obtain the export approvals to supply them with an RCM-type [system], so we’re out of that game,” Friedmann said, adding that MDA continues to explore cooperation with Russia on space robotics.
MDA has responded to a Russian satellite operator’s request for bids on a telecommunications satellite, with bids due in January. Bid requests are expected in the coming weeks for two more Russian telecommunications satellites as well, he said.
Beyond Russia, Friedmann said, “bidding activity [for telecommunications satellites] continues at a high level.” MDA has won five telecommunications satellite contracts so far in 2013, and a sixth that is subject to an “authorization to proceed” agreement, with piecemeal financing, that likely will end with a full construction contract.
SSL recently completed development of an all-electric telecommunications satellite platform, meaning a satellite that will travel from transfer orbit, where it is dropped off by its launch vehicle, to final geostationary position using electric power. That saves several hundred kilograms in launch weight compared with chemical propulsion.
Friedmann said MDA “spent a pile of money” to complete the all-electric design, which has been pioneered in the commercial satellite industry by SSL competitor Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif.
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