WASHINGTON — Before going public with their plans to merge, Canada’s MDA Corp. and DigitalGlobe were already working together on a next-generation imaging constellation called WorldView Legion they say will be able to revisit some locations on Earth up to 40 times in a day.
The new constellation is being designed to protect DigitalGlobe’s advantage in high-resolution, sub-meter imagery and fend off rising small-satellite operators such as Planet that offer faster revisit rates.
Chief executives from MDA and DigitalGlobe mentioned the future constellation during a Feb. 24 conference call detailing MDA’s just-announced agreement to acquire DigitalGlobe in a $3.6 billion deal that includes $2.4 billion in cash stock and the assumption of $1.2 billion in debt. The companies anticipate saving $50 million to $115 million annually by combining operations, including leveraging MDA’s satellite manufacturing capabilities to build future DigitalGlobe satellites.
“MDA is committed to supporting DigitalGlobe’s ability to execute on our future constellation strategy,” Jeffrey Tarr, president and CEO of Westminster, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, said during the call. “This includes initial investment in 2017 in the long-lead time elements of our next-generation satellite system, which we are calling WorldView Legion, targeted for launch in 2020.”
Tarr said combining DigitalGlobe with MDA will enable the imagery provider to reduce capital expenditures on future satellites and other infrastructure. WorldView Legion will supercede WorldView-1 and 2, launched in 2007 and 2009 respectively.
“We’ve been working on WorldView Legion for quite some time,” Tarr told SpaceNews in a Feb. 24 interview, “and SSL has been very involved in that procurement process from the very early days.”
MDA purchased California-based satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (SSL) in 2012, and has been steadily pursuing more U.S. business, particularly through the company’s “U.S. Access Plan” — a strategy that included putting a U.S. citizen, Howard Lance, in charge as president and CEO last year.
SSL gained considerable expertise in building small Earth-imaging satellites through a contract with Terra Bella to build 18 SkySats, each of which is about the size of a mini-fridge. Terra Bella, then known as Skybox Imaging, gave SSL certain intellectual property rights regarding its satellite design, enabling SSL to create more small satellite products.
Terra Bella was purchased this month from Google by Planet, which recently launched 88 imaging cubesats of its own.
MDA, through SSL, has been pursuing business with more small satellite operators, having obtained a contract to build a demonstration telecommunications satellite for Canadian fleet operator Telesat and another small satellite order from an undisclosed customer.
“We’ve seen a lot of innovation in the smallsat area both in communications as well as in Earth imaging,” Lance told SpaceNews. “We remain committed to being a merchant supplier to those customers that we are dealing with and prospects that we are looking at, but in addition to that, we think that together we will be able to get some great technology leverage between the two companies on the design of the next-generation Legion constellation.”
DigitalGlobe’s joint venture with Saudi Arabia’s Taqnia Space and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) is building at least six small satellites with sub-meter resolution imaging capabilities for launch in 2019. Tarr said that joint satellite constellation, recently named Scout, will assist in “revisiting the most rapidly changing places on Earth up to 40 times per day with unrivaled resolution accuracy.”
Lance and Tarr declined to say how many satellites will comprise WorldView Legion.
DigitalGlobe’s latest satellite, WorldView-4, entered service in early January and began serving Direct Access Program customers — prioritized defense and intelligence players that get first access to the satellite. Tarr said DigitalGlobe intends to let commercial customers use the Lockheed Martin-built satellite in the second half of this year.