Commercial satellite work fuels growth of government business

Space company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates has made a new bet on in-orbit satellite servicing and its ongoing program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is a main focus of this new effort.

Dubbed Space Infrastructure Services, this new servicing venture counts MDA as a minority investor with Silicon Valley investment arm Finance Technology Leverage LLC as majority owner along with other partners.

And upon its founding, SIS already has its first commercial sector customer in Luxembourg-based SES to extend the lifespan of satellites in orbit.

The implications of this carry over to government agencies as both private and public sector organizations seek new ways to manage space assets and service them in-orbit, according to Space Systems Loral Vice President Al Tadros.

 “We see satellite servicing as a natural element of innovation and evolution of space systems to stay relevant and competitive… in staying affordable, responsive and flexible,” Tadros told Washington Technology earlier this month. “Both the government and commercial environments are evolving over time at a much faster pace than the 15-year life of the satellites we build and deploy.”

Washington Technology first got an inside look at SSL’s in-orbit servicing portfolio in May when WT spoke with government lead Richard White, who described the business’ Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous program with DARPA and Restore-L contract with NASA. In both instances, SSL is contracted to build a spacecraft that uses robotic arms to grab, refuel and move a government satellite.

The new SIS venture aims to further commercialize servicing services such as refueling and its contract with SES covers work on 62 satellites in-orbit. This arrangement is key for SSL’s government portfolio as it helps create an initial case study for refueling, Tadros said.

“Servicing is not the end but an additional method and tool to build future space systems that are more modular, reconfigurable and repairable in space,” Tadros, VP of space infrastructure and civil space at MDA’s SSL subsidiary, told Washington Technology. “The space infrastructure of the future will not be a single launch and release, (then) operate through its life to depletion and then de-orbit.

“It will be a living platform where you install payloads, expand them, upgrade them and respond to the government need.”

On the government front, SIS awarded SSL a $228 million contract to build an in-orbit servicing spacecraft that meets RSGS’ requirements. SSL’s partners to develop the vehicle include the Naval Research Laboratory, Charles Draper Laboratory and two MDA robotics divisions.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company started construction on the RSGS vehicle approximately one month ago, Tadros said. DARPA selected SSL in February to build a spacecraft that can help extend the life of satellites through repairs of hardware and fixes of stuck assemblies.

Tadros said RSGS’ requirements center around the spacecraft’s inspection, repair, relocation and attachment functions. Both SSL and DARPA have targeted 2021 for an initial launch of the spacecraft, Tadros added.

Once RSGS orbital demonstrations wrap up, the SIS venture will receive the vehicle to operate throughout its lifetime.

For its part, SSL also received one piece of good news on RSGS last week as a federal court dismissed a lawsuit by Orbital ATK seeking to halt the DARPA-run program. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed the case in part on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

“SSL was not a party to the Orbital ATK lawsuit against the U.S. government,” Steve Oldham, SSL’s senior VP of strategic business development, told Washington Technology via email. “‎Per the fully compliant proposal we submitted, SSL is progressing well with the design of the RSGS spacecraft in our Palo Alto facility."

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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