Monday, December 12, 2016

Will the New Space Systems Loral $127Mln NASA Space Robotic Servicing Contract Help Canada?

          By Chuck Black

Using technology derived from the iconic Canadian developed Canadarm, Palo Alto, CA based Space Systems Loral (SSL) has received a $127Mln USD ($167Mln CDN) contract to supply the chassis, hardware and various other services for the NASA Restore-L space robotic servicing mission.

Page three of an undated power-point presentation on "Restore-L Mission Information; Package for NASA Solicitation #NNH15HEOMD001 Spacecraft Bus Concepts To Support The Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission And In Space Robotic Servicing." As outlined in the June 23rd, 2016 NASA post, "NASA’s Restore-L Mission to Refuel Landsat 7, Demonstrate Crosscutting Technologies," the program will launch a robotic spacecraft in 2020 to demonstrate on-orbit satellite servicing and refueling, using a "carefully curated suite of satellite-servicing technologies." Graphic c/o Ron Ticker/NASA.

The new contract could help nudge SSL, as the present US reseller of this technology, into developing its own satellite servicing business. But whether Canada stands to benefit is another question entirely.

As outlined in the December 6th, 2016 Space News post, "NASA’s Restore-L contract nudges SSL closer to in-orbit servicing," SSL, a part of Delaware based SSL-MDA Holding, which also includes Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), has "been actively entertaining the notion of launching a commercial in-orbit servicing business, one that would combine MDA’s past experience from the almost-launched Space Infrastructure Services (SIS) system in the early 2010s with SSL’s knowledge of satellite manufacturing."

Landsat 7 status as of 2014. Graphic c/o USGS/ EO Portal.
According to the post, "Restore-L is intended for launch in 2020, after which NASA will direct the spacecraft to dock with Landsat-7 in low Earth orbit for a test flight. Landsat-7 launched in 1999 aboard a Delta 2 rocket, and will have been in orbit for more than two decades based on current mission timelines."

As discussed in the January 15th, 2012 post, "MDA Satellite Servicing Agreement with Intelsat Expires," the SIS derived from a March, 2011 agreement between MDA and Luxemberg based Intelsat, to resell technology developed originally in the 1970's by DSMA Atcon (which developed a robot to load fuel into CANDU nuclear reactors) and Spar Aerospace (which was eventually purchased by MDA), using Canadian government funding.

That technology eventually became the Canadarm used to deploy, maneuver and capture payloads for the US space shuttle fleet; the mobile servicing system (MSS) which is used for much the same role on board the International Space Station (ISS); and the special purpose dexterous manipulator (SPDM), which is also known as DEXTRE and is also on board the ISS.

Given 30 years of operational history, there was certainly no problem with Canadarm technology.

Any robotic servicing satellite able to repair or refuel another satellite can also inspect and disable it. That makes it a potential weapon. That's also why, as outlined in the August 9th, 2016 post, "An Overview of the SSL/DARPA On-Orbit Satellite Assembly Program," at least some of the funding for SSL technology development has been coming from US military programs, which prefer to fund US owned companies with their manufacturing, research and development facilities located on US soil. This makes it difficult to create Canadian jobs using US military contracts, although national governments have been known to negotiate custom agreements when it suits their purpose. Graphic c/o DARPA.

However, as outlined in the November 1st, 2011 Space News post, "MDA Puts Sat Servicing on Hold; Core Businesses Doing Well," the real problem had to do with US government reticence towards funding a non-US based program. As outlined in the article:
NASA and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are expected to release requests for bids for a satellite servicing test project in the coming weeks. But whether MDA, as a Canadian company, will be permitted to bid on the work remains unclear. MDA has increased the U.S. content — and thus the development cost — of the system in an attempt to get U.S. regulatory approval.
(Then MDA CEO Dan) Friedmann said MDA has all but put the project on hold while waiting to see how NASA and DARPA proceed.  
"It is not prudent for us to proceed without getting clarity from the government and clarity on our participation in those programs,” Friedmann said. “We have an excellent customer, Intelsat. They do not have infinite patience, but they are patient."
Intelsat eventually ran out of patience. The deal fell through in January 2012 after the partners determined that they were unable to interest the US government in their program.

That satellite services project eventually morphed into Resolve-L and several other US government programs which continue to this day.

In 2012, MDA created a second opportunity to bid on US contracts, through its purchase of SSL. As outlined in the  June 27th, 2012 post, "MacDonald Dettwiler buys Space Systems Loral for $875M," the acquisition turned the company "into a global communications player." It also opened the door "for MDA to begin subcontracting US space projects like those for on-orbit satellite servicing through the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)."

But the door still needed to open just a little bit wider. It took MDA another four years to put the final pieces into place to facilitate sales to the US government.

A high level overview in an MD advertisement on page 27 of the November 28th, 2016 edition of the Hill Times, an Ottawa based "influential must-read for the savvy political and government insider." MDA and SSL are currently walking a fine line in fulfilling both the Canadian government requirements needed for bids on contracts such as the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) and the US government requirements to bid on contracts like the NASA Restore-L. Graphic c/o Hill Times.

Those included the creation of a San Francisco, California based holding company (SSL MDA Holdings) to serve as the operating entity for "all MDA businesses, including both the US and Canada," and the separation of SSL and MDA into unique and separate subsidiaries of the larger operating entity.

As outlined in the October 7th, 2016 post "Iconic MacDonald Dettwiler is Now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company with a Canadian Subsidiary," and its October 18th, 2016 update, "A Quick Update to "Iconic Macdonald Dettwiler is now SSL MDA Holdings, a US Based Company," those steps were put into place within the last few months, which dovetails well with the recent NASA Restore-L award.

All of which provides no clear answer to the question of whether Canadians benefit from the sale of this technology to the US.

MDA executives seems to understand this situation, at least off the record, and have embarked on a campaign to address it, by running advertisements in various publications and giving presentations at industry specific public events such as the recent Canadian Aerospace Summit.

But MDA may need more than a PR campaign if they really want to convince Canadians that the sale of Canadarm technology to the US government is good for Canada, at least under the current constraints.

Here's hoping they try something soon.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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