Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cloak and Dagger Between Space Systems Loral and Orbital ATK

          By Brian Orlotti

Space Systems/Loral (SSL), a US based subsidiary of Richmond, BC based Macdonald Detwiler (MDA), has launched a lawsuit against Virginia based Orbital ATK over an alleged computer breach involving proprietary data relating to on-orbit satellite servicing technology. The incident is a ominous milestone in the evolution of the commercial space industry.

It's worth noting that on-orbit satellite servicing concepts have been around for a long long time. Seen above is the first page of a January 11th, 2017 NASA Future In-Space Operations (FISO) telecon presentation on "NASA Satellite Servicing Evolution: 40+ Years of On-Orbit Servicing." Graphic c/o NASA.

According to the complaint filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at least four confidential SSL documents stored on a server at NASA Langley Research Centre were viewed and distributed by an Orbital ATK employee. The documents contain information on SSL technologies for in-space robotic satellite assembly, repair and servicing; research and development data; business plans; procurement strategies; and subcontractor/vendor relationships. SSL was informed of the intrusion by NASA in December 2016.

As outlined in the March 23rd, 2017 Reuters post, "SSL sues rival Orbital ATK over theft of trade secrets: lawsuit," Orbital ATK acknowledged the unauthorized access of SSL’s data, terminated the employee and notified NASA in November 2016.

However, Orbital hasn’t responded to SSL’s queries regarding the scope of the breach or of five other Orbital employees whom NASA say may also have read the documents, according to the lawsuit. NASA said it took immediate action to restrict access and is currently conducting its own investigation.

The SSL lawsuit is the second in six weeks; both filed by companies seeking to kick-start a new in-space satellite repair and servicing industry.

In February 2017, Orbital ATK filed suit against the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Orbital seeks to prevent DARPA from awarding SSL a contract under the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program.

Under RSGS, SSL would provide DARPA with a satellite bus and a robotic arm, possibly utilizing Canadarm techology developed for the Canadian space program although, as outlined in the December 16th, 2016 post, "MDA says No Sale of Canadarm Technology to the US Government in NASA RESTORE-L, DARPA RSGS or 'Any Other" Project,'" this has been vehemently denied by SSL parent MDA.

Orbital argues that the RSGS program violates US space policy by funding a technology in competition with the private sector. Orbital is developing its own satellite servicing system, known as the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), to dock with satellites in geosynchronous orbit and maneuver them. The first MEV is scheduled for launch in late 2018.

The theft of SSL’s robotic servicing data could deal the company a severe blow even as it sets out to create a new in-space satellite servicing industry. Even if SSL should manage to win the case and extract financial damages from Orbital, the already compromised data will give SSL’s competitors in the fledgling satellite servicing industry a massive competitive advantage. Even worse, additional proprietary SSL data may end up being made public over the course of the trial.

The SSL data heist is a case of stacked ironies. One of SSL parent MDA’s prime motives for developing a US business through the purchase of SSL was lack of business from the Canadian government.

Both MDA and SSL have declined to comment for this article.

In a sense, the SSL data heist is a sign of the commercial space sector’s evolution; a fierce jockeying for position in the race for new wealth from a new industry.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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