VICTORIA, British Columbia — With the successful deployment of the RapidEye remote-sensing satellite constellation under its belt, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) is now contemplating a new generation of higher-resolution small satellites that can be marketed as a low-cost alternative to larger and more expensive spacecraft.
Wade Larson, MDA’s director of business development for space missions, said the company is moving ahead with taking the RapidEye constellation concept to the next level. That means a satellite constellation capable of half-meter resolution for a cost on the order of $100 million to $120 million.
“That’s where we’re strategically focused,” said Larson. “We’re talking low cost, high performance systems, with a half of a meter [resolution] for a really unprecedented price point. That’s what we think the market is demanding.”
MDA of Richmond, British Columbia, was the prime contractor for the RapidEye constellation. It developed and built the five small satellites, with a budget, including launch, of 170 million Canadian dollars ($136 million).
, which became operational last month, is owned by RapidEye AG of
. It is a constellation of multispectral optical satellites with 6.5-meter resolution. With five satellites in orbit, the RapidEye constellation offers frequent revisits and can cover an area of up to 4 million square kilometers a day.
The satellites were launched in August 2008. Their data is being marketed to customers in the agriculture, forestry, energy and defense intelligence sectors.
Larson said MDA’s planned next generation of small remote-sensing satellites builds on key elements of RapidEye, in particular the ability to develop high capability systems at a low cost. But he also added that the half-meter resolution capability incorporates new generation technology the firm has been developing through a strategic partnership with
‘s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.
In March 2007 MDA announced that it had taken a controlling interest in Orbital Optics Limited (OOL) of Oxfordshire. OOL holds the exclusive license to patented high-resolution optical cameras developed by the Space Science and Technology Department of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
At the time, MDA officials said the move added a high- and medium-resolution optical payload capability to the firm’s existing radar and satcom payloads, and its turnkey satellite mission offerings.
Optical payloads from OOL include the
resolution RALCam1, which has been successfully flown on the TopSat mission funded by the British government. In addition, the company offers the RALCam4, a sub-meter resolution camera.
According to MDA, these cameras are compatible with existing small satellite platforms and provide customers with highly capable optical imaging at an affordable price.
Larson said that although MDA has not built one of the satellites equipped with a half-meter resolution capability yet, it has constructed and tested some of the key technologies to a “point of program readiness.”
“There is a great deal of skepticism in the market about the ability of anyone to deliver this kind of capability along these kind of price lines,” he acknowledged. “We think RapidEye proves it is doable.”
“We’re still at an informal stage on this,” Larson added.
While offering similar resolution, MDA’s envisioned satellites would not be as capable as those currently operated by Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye and Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe. For example, the MDA satellites would not be as agile as the GeoEye and DigitalGlobe spacecraft and would require more time to slew from target to target.
But Larson said MDA believes that such technical limitations on the spacecraft would be offset by flying several identical satellites. “More satellites means much greater overall imaging capacity, a huge increase in the number of targets that can be imaged, and dramatically improved revisit time – not to mention the benefit of spreading your risk by not having all your eggs in one basket,” he said.
Larson did not identify potential customers by name but said MDA would be marketing the system to governments interested in acquiring a turnkey constellation of three to four satellites. “There’s a lot more customers out there for a $100 million system than there are for a $500 million system,” he added.
Larson acknowledged that any sales of such a system would require export approvals from the Canadian government on the full mission and ground segments. Approvals also would be needed from the British government for the camera system and from the
government for other technologies.
Andrew Eddy, president of AthenaGlobal of Lac Brome,
, said there would be interest in a low-cost constellation of satellites.
But he believes that such interest would be based on whether MDA would do a technology transfer to the nation wanting to acquire such a system.
Eddy, whose firm provides management consulting with a focus on Earth observation satellites, pointed to the British-based Surrey Satellite Technology and its Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) as an example of that.
The DMC uses five remote-sensing satellites to produce imagery for disaster relief operations and other civil applications. The countries involved in DMC include
was able to get participation from a number of different nations, not because they were offering a turnkey satellite [system] but because they were training people at their facility and they were developing capacity so people could go and build their own satellites later,” Eddy said.
“If that’s not part of the package then it could be of limited interest to some nations.”