AIS Competitors Enjoy Early Success, Expect Future Delays

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PARIS — Two companies racing to be first to deploy an operational constellation of maritime traffic monitoring satellites for the world’s coastal authorities both reported successes with newly launched spacecraft but ongoing delays in future satellite launches.

Orbcomm of Ft. Lee, N.J., and exactEarth of Cambridge, Ontario, a subsidiary of Canada’s Com Dev, also face the prospect of new competitors entering the Automatic Identification System (AIS) market, some with government backing.

All ships above a certain weight class are now required to carry AIS packages that transmit information such as their position and heading. Satellites are used to relay that data to coastal authorities.

Industry estimates of the potential size of the global space-based AIS market are necessarily speculative, but none say it is likely to be much more than $100 million a year. How many companies can carve out a profitable service remains unclear.

Orbcomm had the jump on Com Dev until its six AIS-equipped QuickLaunch satellites, built by a Russian manufacturer, failed in orbit. That ended Orbcomm’s U.S. Coast Guard AIS revenue stream.

OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, was contract manager for the QuickLaunch spacecraft. As part of a settlement with Orbcomm following the failures, OHB hired its LuxSpace subsidiary to build two Vesselsat satellites for Orbcomm while Orbcomm waits for its 18 second-generation messaging satellites, all AIS-equipped, to be launched. These second-generation satellites, under construction by Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., are also behind schedule, with the first launch of a single demonstration craft tentatively scheduled for January.

The Vesselsats are the first satellites ever built by the Luxembourg-based LuxSpace.

The first Vesselsat was launched Oct. 12 aboard an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket, carrying as the main passenger an Earth observation satellite that will operate in equatorial orbit. This is not ideal for AIS, but Orbcomm Chief Executive Marc J. Eisenberg said the satellite is working even better than expected.

“Although it is in an equatorial inclination, it is seeing ships as far north and south as 48 degrees — from the southern border of Canada to near the southern tip of South America,” Eisenberg told investors in a Nov. 9 conference call.

The second Vesselsat satellite is scheduled for launch into a polar orbit in mid-January aboard a Chinese Long March 4 rocket. Jochen Harms, managing director of LuxSpace, said in a Nov. 18 interview that the company is happy with the satellite’s performance, and believes that a combined equatorial and polar orbit will give Orbcomm advantages it would not have with an all-polar-orbit constellation.

Harms said LuxSpace, which used its own technology for the Vesselsat sensor, is one of several companies in Europe positioning themselves for work on a potential European Space Agency program devoted to AIS.

Eisenberg said the AIS piece of Orbcomm’s business is valued at about “$10 million or $15 million [per year] in the out years. In the near term it’s a couple of million a year, and then it grows.”

Orbcomm’s 18 second-generation satellites are all scheduled for launch aboard Falcon 9 rockets built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. Falcon 9, a new rocket, has made just two flights. Its next flight is scheduled to carry an unmanned cargo capsule to the international space station before continuing its mission to place one Orbcomm satellite into orbit.

NASA and SpaceX are still discussing the timing of the launch and whether there are any risks involved in having the cargo vehicle, called Dragon, released near the station and then having the Falcon 9 upper stage perform an additional burn to continue to the higher orbit needed for Orbcomm.

Com Dev’s exactEarth, which like Orbcomm has used its own funds to develop an AIS service, said the AIS payload launched in April attached to India’s Resourcesat-2 Earth observation satellite is performing well. Industry officials have said the payload is not working to expectations, but exactEarth President Peter Mabson sought to dispel that idea. In a Nov. 22 response to Space News inquiries, Mabson said the satellite “is now commissioned and is in service, delivering a record number of AIS messages. In addition, the data being provided to us by SpaceQuest from their satellites is also of very high quality.”

Fairfax, Va.-based SpaceQuest has leased two small satellites to exactEarth since 2010 and has agreed to build two more. Another exactEarth satellite is delayed because the main payload of its Russian Soyuz rocket is behind schedule. This satellite is now scheduled for launch in March.

In his statement, Mabson said exactEarth has booked more than $10 million in orders in the past 12 months and delivered more than 3 billion vessel position reports in that period.

“Our current service is delivering 750,000 vessel position reports per day and provides at least 10 satellite passes per day over all global maritime areas,” Mabson said.