Maxar Technologies is set to deliver in early 2024 the first of 16 satellite buses ordered by L3Harris for a military constellation in low Earth orbit (LEO) run by the U.S. Space Development Agency.
L3Harris is the first customer for Maxar’s newly designed small satellite bus, tailored for the megaconstellation market. The bus is now offered to other defense contractors competing for SDA satellite contracts.
Maxar President and CEO Daniel Jablonsky said the company is trying to seize a crucial opportunity created by SDA’s large LEO constellation — which includes a Transport Layer of satellite for communications and a Tracking Layer for missile detection.
The satellite bus selected by L3Harris for SDA’s Tracking Layer is the smallest of the Maxar line, designed for proliferated constellations that require faster production rates.
“We’re pretty nascent on the defense side right now, but we’re coming up the chain fast,” Jablonsky told SpaceNews April 20.
L3Harris in July won a $700 million contract from SDA to produce 14 satellites for the Tracking Layer Tranche 1, plus two additional satellites for a missile-tracking demonstration. All 16 satellites are projected to launch in mid-2025.
“It’s a growing market opportunity for us,” said Jablonsky. “Budgets for defense applications are going up around the world. And they’re particularly going up for robust space capabilities.”
The contract with L3Harris marks a major milestone for Maxar. Only five years ago, the company was exploring options to sell or even shut down its commercial spacecraft manufacturing business due to dwindling orders for geostationary communications satellites. Instead, Maxar restructured its business to focus on smaller satellites and government sales.
PURSUING DEFENSE INDUSTRY PARTNERS
Maxar, in 2021, unsuccessfully bid for an SDA satellite contract as a prime contractor and filed a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office. The protest led SDA to change its contracting approach from traditional procurements to a more flexible contracting mechanism known as Other Transaction Authority, which requires large defense contractors to team up with commercial players.
In the two years since, Maxar shifted its focus to hardware manufacturing and has sought teaming arrangements with prime contractors.
“We’re very proud of the partnership we have with L3Harris,” said Jablonsky. Maxar is also in discussions with other defense firms. “We’re a commercial company, and we’re very happy to work with the primes.”
Since the rollout of the LEO bus platform, he said, “people are excited about the capability, and we’re getting inbound requests for proposals.”
TWO BUSES PER MONTH
Joe Foust, Maxar’s vice president of proliferated low Earth orbit constellations, told SpaceNews the company spent the past two years developing the small satellite bus for the LEO market in hopes of competing more aggressively in the commercial and national security sectors.
The buses, made at Maxar’s satellite factory in Palo Alto, California, will be shipped to L3Harris’ assembly facility at Palm Bay, Florida.
After the first delivery in early 2024, Maxar will start producing buses at a rate of approximately two per month, Foust said.
Foust said Maxar’s small bus is being offered in the commercial LEO market primarily for communications constellations.
“The 250-1,000 kilogram bus can support payloads anywhere from 200 to about 500 kilograms,” he said.
Supply chain problems, some caused by the COVID pandemic, slowed down Maxar’s satellite deliveries over the past two years, Foust noted, but now the company is working to prevent such delays going forward.
As soon as the contract with L3Harris was signed in August, “we were ready to place those orders pretty quickly,” said Foust. “So we got all our long-lead items on contract within a month or two.”
Maxar plans to extensively test the new bus in its lab before the first one is shipped to L3Harris, said Foust. “We’ll go through a very rigorous test campaign to make sure it works as a space vehicle.”
Because of its modular design with standard components, he said, production can scale up pretty rapidly.
LEGION BUS FOR REMOTE-SENSING CONSTELLATIONS
The plan to diversify Maxar’s satellite business includes its mid-size bus, originally designed for its WorldView Legion high-resolution Earth imaging constellation.
Jablonsky said the company rebranded its buses into three lines. The smaller bus it sold to L3Harris is the Maxar 300 series. The WorldView Legion bus is the Maxar 500, and the large buses used for geostationary communications satellites are the Maxar 1300 line.
A smaller version of the 1300 bus was selected in 2018 by Swedish broadband operator Ovzon. Maxar is now actively marketing the 500 bus used on WorldView Legion for remote-sensing applications. Jablonsky said the platform is best suited to carry a sensor package for electro-optical or radar imaging. “Lots of other things can be put on that bus.”
GEO SATELLITES NOT GOING AWAY
On the geostationary satellite front, there are still hopeful signs for Maxar, even though the market has lost ground to LEO constellations.
A U.S. Federal Communications Commission spectrum auction helped Maxar secure an order from Intelsat in 2020 for four GEO satellites. Intelsat and other operators have to clear the C-band spectrum for cellular 5G networks to qualify for billions of dollars in FCC incentive payments.
While the C-band auction created an artificial bump in the market, other orders have been placed by satellite broadcasters.
SiriusXM last year bought two GEO satellites from Maxar to expand its radio broadcasting constellation. And last month the Dish Network placed a GEO bus order to expand its broadcast services over North America.
“The GEO customers that we have continue to have business cases,” said Jablonsky. “There are certain things that are very efficiently done from GEO, and broadcasting I don’t think is going anywhere, anytime soon.”
The 1300 series platform, he noted, is being applied to other uses besides geostationary satellites. An example is NASA’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE), a spacecraft designed to provide electrical power for future elements of the agency’s lunar Gateway outpost in deep space. The launch of the Gateway mission is currently targeted for 2024.
“There’s all these ecosystems on the civil side that I think are very interesting,” Jablonsky said.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.