Sunday, February 12, 2017

Look Ma! No Canadarms!!! MDA & Orbital ATK Battle for US On-Orbit Satellite Servicing Contracts

          By Chuck Black

Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) has issued a press release announcing that its "US business unit," the Paulo Alto, CA based Space Systems Loral (SSL), has "entered into an agreement with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the capability to service and maintain spacecraft and other infrastructure" as part of DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program.

DARPA RSGS utilizing MDA US Systems robotic arms to repair a satellite on orbit as described in the July 21st, 2016 SSL press release, "SSL To Provide Robotic Arms To DARPA for Satellite Servicing," which announced an earlier $20.7Mln US ($27.1Mln CDN) award. As outlined in the February 9th, 2017 Design Engineering post, "MDA subsidiary's space robot stymied by Orbital ATK lawsuit," MDA subsidiary SSL had been on the verge of winning the latest in a series of lucrative DARPA contracts under the RSGS program. Graphic c/o DARPA/ SSL.

As outlined in the February 9th, 2017 MDA press release, "SSL selected to partner with DARPA to develop satellite servicing business," the program "will be the foundation of a new business for SSL that will serve both commercial and government operators with repair, upgrade, relocation, and refueling of on-orbit assets."

No dollar amount was specified in the announcement, but there's substantial cash at stake and at least one direct competitor has already made a separate claim. As outlined in the February 7th, 2017 Defence News post, "Orbital ATK sues DARPA over robotic satellite-servicing program ," the legal challenge threatens to unravel the RSGS program.

Orbital ATK claims that "the agency's robotic satellite-servicing program violates national space policy," which explicitly directs government agencies "to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace."

The company also insists that its Space Logistics subsidiary is already working on a Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) in partnership with Luxemburg based commercial satellite operator Intelsat, which duplicates most of the functionality required for the RSGS program.

As outlined in the February 4th, 2017 DennisWingo post, "On Orbit Servicing Controversy; DARPA VS Commercial," on-orbit satellite servicing has a long history, with commercial proposals going back to the 1950's and the 1980's space shuttle missions. More recently, the article mentions the 2005 NASA DART "mishap," the 2007 Orbital Express mission (a DARPA funded mission, utilizing an Orbital Express Demonstration Manipulator System, developed by MDA based upon its experience with Canadarm technology) and the 2011 Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) partnership between MDA and Intelsat. That deal, as outlined in the January 12th, 2012 post, "MDA Satellite Servicing Agreement with Intelsat Expires," eventually fell through when the partners couldn't crack the US market. Last year, Intelsat partnered up with Orbital ATK to work on the MEV-1 program. Graphic c/o Dennis Wingo

Two other companies have also been singled out by Orbital ATK as having commercial satellite servicing programs.

As outlined in the January 31st, 2017 post, "Satellite Servicing, Orbital ATK, MDA, Security Control Agreements," CETA, Minister Duncan's Science Adviser & Nova Scotia Spaceports, the first is MDA, the winner of the recent NASA Restore-L satellite servicing mission (also via SSL).

Orbital ATK has insisted that the Restore-L program duplicates the DARPA RSGS program, but is targeted at the commercial, civilian marketplace, an area where, as outlined in the 2010 National Space Policy, DARPA is restricted from entering.

The second is United Kingdom based Effective Space Solutions , which is currently "building small satellites for life-extension and other services," according to its website.

Oddly enough, perhaps especially so given its history of previous partnerships and programs in this area, MDA has insisted that no Canadarm derived technology is involved with the current round of on-orbit satellite servicing projects. 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," referenced statements from MDA communications director Wendy Keyser, who specifically requested publication. Graphic c/o Commercial Space blog.

The stakes in this area are high. "DARPA's proposal will effectively use taxpayer funds to establish one company in a dominant position over all other competition," Orbital ATK stated in its complaint.

The Orbital ATK complaint also claimed that:
DARPA will provide hundreds of millions of dollars of services and equipment to a single competitor, in turn providing that competitor with an insurmountable taxpayer funding subsidy that will unfairly and unnecessarily harm any other company's development of private on-orbit robotic servicing technology.
Perhaps in anticipation of the potential big payday, several small organizations and individuals have approached both MDA and Orbital ATK, with patents dating from both the early days of the US space program and from the 1980's satellite servicing experiments with the Canadian built Canadarm.

The patent holders are no doubt hoping that the giant multinational aerospace corporations will be willing to share their expected bounty.

Here's hoping that they have deep pockets to carry on their fight. 
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.


  1. What were the overall R&D and development costs of the Canadarm?

  2. My guess would be several hundred million Canadian dollars, but I'm not certain.

    I'm also pretty sure that the US government provided offsets worth several billions of dollars in exchange. Again, I'd need to do some real research on the topic to feel comfortable with any of those numbers.

    Of course, MDA insists that Canadarm derived technology wasn't used for the current DARPA and NASA programs.


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