MDA Corp. (nearly) ready to take another run

MDA Corp. intends to bring the same robotic chops to satellite servicing that it used to build Canadarm2, shown here moving  the  International Space Station’s Quest airlock into place in 2001. Credit: NASA

MDA Corp. intends to bring the same robotic chops to satellite servicing that it used to build Canadarm2, shown here moving  the  International Space Station’s Quest airlock into place in 2001. Credit: NASA

Canada’s robotics specialist has added SSL to the mix since sending satellite servicing to the sidelines. But it’s also given up its lead.

MDA Corp. is on the verge of taking another run at satellite servicing five years after putting efforts on hold when its first attempt did not generate enough commercial or government interest.

When MDA bought satellite-builder Space Systems Loral in 2012, the Canadian company was quick to point out that its new U.S. holding could revive its dream of having a servicing venture. Now, four years after the acquisition, MDA — through SSL — says it is close to deciding whether to jump back in.

MDA purchased SSL just six months after scrapping an in-orbit servicing agreement with satellite operator Intelsat, which had committed to using MDA’s Space Infrastructure Services (SIS) system to refuel multiple satellites. Steve Oldham, the former president of MDA’s Space Infrastructure Services division, now senior vice president of strategic business development at SSL, said the companies recognized a clear synergy post-merger that could lead to the resurrection of a similar business venture. That vision today would leverage the combined skills of SSL and its parent company to create a robotic spacecraft based on SSL’s flagship S1300 satellite platform.

If MDA jumps back it, it stands to return to a more crowded satellite-servicing market than the one it left. At least two other ventures expect to launch servicer spacecraft in 2018. MDA doesn’t expect to have its vehicle ready sooner than 2020.

Orbital ATK, through its wholly owned Space Logistics LLC subsidiary, signed Intelsat in April as the first customer for its revived satellite-servicing business and has since booked a 2018 launch for its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) aboard an International Launch Services Proton Medium rocket.

Work on the MEV dates back to around 2010 when ATK — still several years before merging its space business with Orbital Sciences Corp. — formed the ViviSat venture with U.S. Space LLC to develop and commercialize a satellite serving system. This past April, Orbital ATK dissolved ViviSat and announced its new venture, Space Logistics, in a joint press conference with Intelsat. U.S. Space promptly sued Orbital ATK, claiming Orbital improperly shut down the joint venture to pursue the servicing business on its own.

Despite the ongoing lawsuit, Tom Wilson, president of Space Logistics and vice president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group, said “everything is progressing well,” and that the program-level Preliminary Design Review for MEV-1 is scheduled for early December. Wilson told SpaceNews that all long-lead hardware for the first two MEVs have already been ordered.

Across the Atlantic, startup Effective Space Solutions also has a servicer spacecraft planned for launch in 2018. Founded in Israel but headquartered in the U.K., the company has been working with a manufacturer on a 350-kilogram spacecraft since 2015, according to the company’s vice president of marketing and business development, Daniel Campbell, and now has two letters of intent from satellite operator customers for multi-year life-extension and deorbiting. Campbell said those letters are in the process of being converted to contracts. He declined to identify the customers or the launch provider, but said the mission would launch via rideshare.

Decision point

MDA has not fully committed to launching its SSL satellite servicing business, but in an interview with SpaceNews, Oldham said the company has lots of customer interest, and expects the program will begin in the first half of 2017 if it receives the green light. Following approval by MDA’s board of directors, he estimated it would take three to four years to build the servicer, thus putting the start date for the service around 2020 or 2021.

Oldham said SSL has identified three markets it would like to pursue through an in-orbit servicing business: satellite refueling, satellite repair and relocation, and in-orbit assembly and manufacturing.

“We have had advanced discussions with a variety of commercial operators for two of those markets that aren’t opportunistic; those are refueling and in-orbit construction,” said Oldham. “Those discussions with some operators are very well advanced into quite detailed contractual language, and others are in the early stages.”

Oldham wouldn’t say how many customer commitments would constitute the critical mass MDA needs to go ahead with the program.

“The question would be: what are the conditions that we need to achieve before proceeding ahead with the program? As many signed up customers as you can get is a requirement,” he said.

He listed customers, insurance and political assurances as necessary go-ahead criteria. Oldham said SSL met with insurance underwriters in November to discuss the servicer. He said that the company has already performed “a detailed amount of work” on the necessary regulatory regime.

Brighter forecasts?

In-orbit servicing has been on the satellite industry’s wish list for years, but would-be service providers have scarcely lined up anything more than nonbinding letters of intent.

Space Logistics’ signature of a firm contract with Intelsat in April for a five-year life extension mission changed the tone of the conversation from wishful to believable.

David Belcher, analysis manager at the research firm Avascent, said he is “slightly more optimistic” about the potential of in-orbit servicing as an industry than he was a couple of years ago “simply because once someone signs a contract, it helps clarify things.”

Though citing potential pitfalls including regulatory confusion (since in-orbit servicing is uncharted waters for both industry and governments) and the determination of fault in the event of in-space damage, Belcher said he believes there could be room for several regional players in a manner not all too dissimilar from the launch sector. That is, multiple players could arise to service commercial and government satellites, but with a certain level of government favoritism based on geopolitical factors.

Also like the launch sector, Belcher said government business — the absence of which contributed to the demise of MDA’s previous in-orbit servicing venture — will probably contribute an appreciable amount of demand.

“I think that the potential market for commercial servicers is probably pretty good largely due to the fact that I think there probably be demand from governments for the service,” he explained.

The Government Lynchpin?

SSL has performed ground-based demonstrations of the technology needed for a servicer with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Canadian Space Agency. Oldham said there would also be a degree of on-orbit testing prior to acting on the first commercial contract, assuming MDA moves forward with the program.

Much of the work SSL has done related to in-orbit servicing has been through government programs, notably NASA’s Dragonfly program, which focuses on in-orbit assembly of spacecraft, and DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, which focuses on the repair, repositioning and possible upgrading of satellites.

Oldham downplayed the concern that government programs might cannibalize commercial efforts in this field.

“No one has built a satellite that goes around and services other satellites, so having a government and commercial partnership I think makes a lot of sense. That’s the way DARPA is going and we are good with that,” he said.

He added that these government programs are less focused on refueling and life extension, which would be one of SSL’s primary services. But will government, particularly the Defense Department, become more than a technology partner? Back around 2011, MDA’s satellite-servicing venture faced challenges in this domain because it was difficult to gauge how DoD felt about such a business coming from a Canadian company. Furthermore, DoD was refreshing multiple constellations with new satellites.

Today DoD is studying what assets it will leverage in a future architecture. That undisclosed future could include in-orbit servicing, and now that MDA has SSL, the company could bid as an American entity. It’s also not unreasonable to envision government customers using life-extension services to prevent service gaps in between fielding new spacecraft. Compared to the SIS days, these variables could maybe make the case for MDA once more.

Field of Competition

MDA is taking a different approach from Space Logistics and Effective Space Solutions. Oldham said the principal difference from Space Logistics is that SSL’s servicer would not dock with a client satellite for multi-year periods. Rather, the SSL servicer would dock, refuel the satellite in about a month’s time or less, and move on to another customer, reducing the number of servicers needed compared to Space Logistics’ plan.

Currently MDA’s take is that it will only require one vehicle to meet the initial demand. Should in-orbit servicing prove wildly successful, Oldham said the number could grow to two or three.

Compared to Effective Space Solutions, which aims to offer life extension, satellite relocation and deorbiting using a highly dextrous small satellite, MDA intends to provide a wider range of services. Oldham estimated that if the value of life extension is $10 million to $15 million a year, then a business built around such a service would need multiple clients per year or need to be supplemented by other capabilities to create a constant revenue stream.

Oldham estimated that over the next 10 years, roughly 150 satellites would become candidates for life extension. Candidate spacecraft are limited to those relying on chemical propulsion.