Intelsat Eyes NASA Demo Program for Satellite Refueling Plan

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Intelsat General Corp. thinks a NASA technology demonstration program that makes no mention of satellite in-orbit servicing may nonetheless serve as a crucial funding source for the company’s in-orbit satellite-refueling project with MDA Corp. of Canada.

A NASA Broad Agency Announcement soliciting proposals for four different technology demonstration missions ostensibly seeks missions testing high-bandwidth deep-space communications, orbital debris mitigation, in-space propulsion systems and autonomous rendezvous, docking and proximity operations.

The Space Infrastructure Services (SIS) project being assembled by MDA appears to cover three of these four areas, and Intelsat officials said it would not be a stretch to add a high-bandwidth communications capability to the MDA spacecraft to cover the fourth subject as well.

NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program, managed by the agency’s office of the chief technologist, has set a May 31 deadline for project proposals. Winning bids will be announced in August or September, according to the NASA solicitation.

In its request for bids, NASA says the winner in each of the four categories could receive funding from $10 million to $150 million, with a higher amount possible “if the proposed effort presents a compelling new technological capability that warrants higher a funding level.”

But in a caveat that NASA contractors are hearing a lot these days, the solicitation adds: “Awards … are contingent upon appropriated funds.” It is unclear how much funding the program will have at its disposal.

Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, the world’s largest commercial satellite fleet operator, has agreed to pay MDA $280 million to refuel several Intelsat satellites that are running low on fuel but are otherwise in good health.

MDA, whose broad robotics expertise has already been spun off to nonspace areas including medical surgery, has agreed to invest about $200 million of its own funds to get the project under way. MDA managers have said the Intelsat commitment, even though it will be paid only upon successful in-orbit fueling operations, will nonetheless help MDA secure project financing from investors.

MDA has said its SIS vehicle, loaded with 2,000 kilograms of fuel, could be in orbit by 2015. MDA has forged a partnership with Intelsat General in which the latter company is charged with finding a U.S. government agency to co-sponsor the mission alongside Intelsat.

In an April 12 interview during the National Space Symposium here, Intelsat General President Kay Sears said her company has created two teams working on the SIS project. The special strength Intelsat General brings to the project is its knowledge of the U.S. government and its multiple funding and program avenues.

“We’ll certainly respond with MDA” to the NASA technology program request for bids, Sears said. “We think our project is a close fit to what NASA intends.”

Sears said she recently returned from a meeting of investors in Canada organized by MDA, where she fielded questions about Intelsat’s commitment to the project, and Intelsat’s views on the future of in-orbit servicing.

Intelsat and MDA have given themselves until next autumn to find a government co-sponsor, whose presence would lessen the capital expenditure required by MDA to assemble the satellite-refueling structure, finance the launch and conduct a mission lasting at least several months in the geostationary-orbit arc, the home of most telecommunications satellites.

Sears said the project should have special appeal to the U.S. Defense Department, whose satellites generally are several times more expensive than the commercial telecommunications satellites in Intelsat’s fleet.