PARIS — Two industrial teams — one British-Canadian, the other American — are competing to build the next-generation constellation of low-orbiting satellites for Orbcomm Inc. in a competition that would represent a major new market presence for either bidder.
Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Britain has teamed with Com Dev of Ontario to use an SSTL satellite platform based on existing, proven SSTL-built satellites and a Com Dev-built payload.
Facing small-satellite veteran builder SSTL and Com Dev is a team that is new to the satellite business. Argon ST of Fairfax, Va., is proposing to build the Orbcomm payloads using a satellite platform provided by Microsat Systems Inc. of Littleton, Colo. Microsat’s first satellite, the TacSat-2 for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, was launched in December.
Ft. Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm is expected to decide by this summer who will be prime contractor for the second-generation constellation of low-orbiting Orbcomm messaging satellites. The initial second-generation order is expected to be for 18 satellites, according to industry officials.
Both bids are likely to feature Russia’s silo-launched Strela rocket, which like the commercial Rockot vehicle is based on the SS-19 ballistic missile. Strela is being developed as a space-launch system by NPO Mashinostroenia. Strela has conducted only one orbital mission, in 2003.
While the company’s current 30-satellite fleet is operating satisfactorily, there is nonetheless some urgency to the award. Orbcomm has told investors that it plans to begin launches of the first 18 second-generation satellites in 2009.
Orbcomm’s satellites, which provide asset-management services to permit companies to keep track of their cargo or other goods, were launched between 1997 and 1999. Each spacecraft was expected to function for between nine and 12 years.
Orbcomm, which in November completed an initial stock offering on the U.S. Nasdaq exchange to fund the second-generation system, has said software upgrades and changes in the way the satellites are flown have coaxed an additional 1.5 to 2.5 years of service life from the constellation.
In addition, the company has seven modified first-generation satellites on order from a team that originally was expected to be a strong contender for the second-generation system. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is providing the electronics payloads for these seven Orbcomm satellites, with the satellite platform procured by OHB System of Bremen, Germany, and built by Polyot of Russia.
Orbcomm entered into separate contracts with Orbital Sciences and OHB System for the satellites. A first satellite to provide a demonstration of the Automatic Identification System for the U.S. Coast Guard was ordered solo.
Orbcomm then ordered six additional satellite payloads from Orbital Sciences, followed by six platforms, integration and launch services from OHB System. Both orders included options for two more satellites.
The six-satellite order with Orbital Sciences and OHB cost a total of $37 million including launch, according to a March 28 Orbcomm submission to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The Orbcomm Coast Guard demonstration satellite was supposed to be launched in 2006 but has run into manufacturing difficulties that have delayed that launch until sometime this summer, according to Orbcomm. The six other satellites on order are also scheduled for launch this year, on Russian Cosmos rockets from Russia’s Kapustin Yar spaceport.
OHB System officials have used Russia’s Cosmos rocket for multiple missions, and have planned to use five vehicles to launch the five German military SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance satellites. The first has already been launched.
But the Cosmos vehicle is being retired, making it unclear whether the vehicle will be available for any commercial launches not already booked.
One industry official said the Argon ST/Microsat bid proposes several innovative technologies that argue in its favor. Set against that is the team’s relative satellite inexperience compared to SSTL and Com Dev, a well-known provider of satellite electronics.
“It’s not an easy choice, and I think everyone has been pleasantly surprised by the competitiveness of the bids,” this industry official said.
Phil Davies, SSTL senior account manager, confirmed the company’s interest in the Orbcomm work and the teaming arrangement with Com Dev but declined to provide details on the platform being proposed.
Todd S. Mosher, director of business development at Microsat Systems, referred questions about the Orbcomm bid to Argon ST.
Argon ST business development manager Sarah Fram said the company would not comment on its ambitions in the satellite sector. Fram said the company “is pursuing new communications business, to include satellite communications opportunities. We have no comment on any specific bid and proposal efforts.”
Orbcomm told the SEC that it plans to pay for its new satellites from cash on hand and the company’s marketable securities. The company’s November stock-market introduction provided some $68 million in available cash after underwriter commissions, transaction costs and dividends for preferred-stock shareholders were paid.
Orbcomm said that as of Dec. 31, it had $62 million in cash and $38.9 million in marketable securities.