SSL lends a hand to smallsat startups

From technical assistance to access to financing, a satellite shop sets itself up as smallsat one-stop

Space Systems Loral, a company best known for building geostationary telecommunications satellites as big as school buses, is expanding its role in the small satellite business by offering its assistance — and that of its parent company MDA Corp. of Canada — to startups.

“No matter what you are trying to do, if it touches space we can work with you to build a mission,” Hale Reynolds, Space Systems Loral business development director, said Nov. 16 at a Silicon Valley Space Center TechTalk. “We have competency in any kind of space hardware manufacturing as well as on the business side and the data-distribution side.”

SSL has contracts to build 21 satellites for low Earth orbit, including 13 for Google’s Earth-observation subsidiary Terra Bella, seven for customers it cannot yet name due to non-disclosure agreements and one for Telesat, the Canadian satellite communications company planning to build a constellation of at least 117 satellites to provide internet access. Six of the satellites SSL cannot yet discuss are being built for a single customer.

Telesat, which is owned by Loral Space and Communications of New York and Canada’s PSP Investments pension fund, awarded contracts in April to SSL and Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited to each build a single prototype Ka-band satellite for its planned constellation. The prototypes are scheduled to launch in 2017.

This is not SSL’s first foray into low Earth orbit constellations. MDA purchased SSL from Loral in 2012. When it was part of Loral, SSL built more than 70 satellites for Globalstar, a satellite telephone network conceived in the 1990s that struggled to attract investment and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002 due in part to the rapid expansion of cellphone service.

After that experience, there was a bit of reluctance at SSL to embrace low-Earth-orbit constellations, “but lower spacecraft and launch costs are now allowing more business cases to close,” Reynolds said.

Four of the 13 SkySats that SSL is building for Terra Bella launched in September on an Arianespace Vega rocket. Credit: SSL ARTIST’S CONCEPT

Four of the 13 SkySats that SSL is building
for Terra Bella launched in September on
an Arianespace Vega rocket. Credit: SSL ARTIST’S CONCEPT

In 2014, Terra Bella, then called Skybox Imaging, hired SSL to build 13 satellites weighing roughly 100 kilograms to gather high-resolution still and video imagery from low Earth orbit. Under the terms of the deal, SSL obtained an exclusive license to market the small satellite bus.

Since 2014, SSL has been building small satellites in a dedicated manufacturing facility at its Palo Alto headquarters. The firm set up parallel production lines to speed work on Terra Bella satellites. Unlike the enormous geostationary telecommunications satellites that often take years to design and build because each is unique, SSL could build some small satellites in a matter of weeks, Reynolds said.

For a new constellation, SSL might spend “a number of months” building the first satellite, “but we can get that down to build-times measured in weeks if we are pumping out dozens,” Reynolds said.

In addition to building satellites under fixed-price contracts with defined delivery schedules, SSL is offering to help startups acquire Federal Communications Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration licenses, find launch vehicles and financing, navigate the U.S. regulatory process, operate satellites in orbit and sell Earth-observation data.

“If, for example, you are interested in an Earth-observation mission, we have groups that can help with ground systems, satellite operations, data downlink, production and distribution,” Reynolds said. SSL has access to a global network of resellers for space-based remote-sensing data and ties to the U.S. government agencies that buy data, he added.

Through its parent company, SSL also can help startups access financing through Export Development Canada, an important advantage since the U.S. Export-Import Bank cannot currently approve loans of more than $10 million because Congress has blocked nominees from joining the bank’s board, which prevents the quorum the bank board needs to approve large loans.

“Often startups have great ideas and interesting business cases but they need a proven company to stand behind their concepts and demonstrate their feasibility and manufacturability to equity and debt financiers,” Reynolds said. “SSL is accustomed to helping startups attract financing this way.”

For example, SSL supported Terra Bella’s business plan before the company, then known as Skybox Imaging, was purchased in 2014 by Google, SSL spokeswoman Wendy Lewis said. MDA also helped San Francisco-based Earth-observation constellation operator Planet with business planning as part of its role as prime contractor for the RapidEye mission, she added. In 2015, Planet acquired Berlin-based BlackBridge and its five-satellite RapidEye medium-resolution imaging satellites.

Most startups have set their sites on low Earth orbit, but SSL also is offering transportation to companies planning to send spacecraft into more distant orbits. “Our large geostationary telecommunication satellites are so big that we actually have extra capacity,” Reynolds said.

 “If you have a small satellite you want to go to geostationary orbit or geostationary transfer orbit, we can host you as a rideshare out to those areas and then deploy your spacecraft.”