Sunday, January 15, 2012

MDA Satellite Servicing Agreement with Intelsat Expires

The winds have been whispering "off the record" for quite some time but last Wednesday, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) finally confirmed the unofficial rumors. Under the headline "Space Infrastructure Servicing Update" the company announced that the "MDA/Intelsat Agreement announced March 15, 2011, has ceased to be in effect."

As explained in my March 15th, 2011 post "Macdonald Dettwiler gets "Anchor Customer" for Brampton Robotics Plant" the original agreement was for $280 million USD worth of services and satellite refueling to be offered to Intelsat General Corporation, a European based satellite services provider, in order to provide MDA with an "anchor customer" to move forward with its space infrastructure servicing (SIS) vehicle. The SIS was expected to "service commercial and government satellites in need of additional fuel, re-positioning or other maintenance."

According to the latest press release, MDA is "continuing to pursue opportunities in this area and is currently focused on bidding a space servicing Broad Agency Announcement from a U.S. Government agency, which is due in February."

But as outlined in my November 11th, 2011 post "Will US Allow Canada to Bid On-Orbit Satellite Servicing Contracts?" there is much concern over whether or not the Canadian firm will be allowed to bid successfully on US government agency contracts. While the original MDA/ Intelsat agreement agreement was for a substantial amount of money ($280 million USD) the total cost of development was always expected to be far higher and this shortfall needed to be covered with other contracts.

The US government was always the logical second market and MDA initially selected Intelsat as anchor tenant specifically to access it, according to the January 13th, 2012 Parabolic Arc post "MDA, Intelsat Terminate Satellite Servicing Agreement." But while the SIS system is generally considered to be the logical next step in the development of in-space orbital infrastructure (which includes satellite refueling), the US government seems intent on insuring that any government money used to develop infrastructure goes primarily to US based companies.

Other avenues for funding (such as the October 2011 Canadian Space Agency contract for $250,000 CDN to perform an "on-orbit, automated servicing experiment"), while appreciated, are generally not perceived of as being sufficient to support the total program. Possible competitors in on-orbit satellite services include the ViviSat Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) and the DARPA Phoenix program.

It is expected that, without an anchor customer to "leverage the existing skills" of the MDA Brampton Robotics division, the layoffs originally announced in my March 3rd, 2011 post "Downsizing Announced at MDA Robotics" and partially superseded by the original MDA/ Intelsat announcement will now go forward. The SIS system architecture was to have been based on work that MDA has previously performed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and other civilian and military agencies for the US space shuttle's Canadarm and the mobile servicing system for the International Space Station (ISS).

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