MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) today announced it has entered into an agreement with Intelsat S.A. as its anchor tenant for its Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) vehicle which could be in service by 2015. This is a major step forward for the Richmond, BC headquartered company as it helps create a new commercial space segment.
The Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle is an on-orbit servicing spacecraft that will initially carry up to 2,000 kilograms of fuel and a suite of robotic tools to service satellites of which Intelsat will be the first customer. The servicing of these satellites is expected to extend the life of each satellite from one to five years depending on the customers needs.
The agreement is an important milestone for the company as it has been trying to leverage its expertise in robotic technologies such as the Canadarm’s on the Space Shuttles and the Mobile Servicing System on the International Space Station. With the space shuttle retiring this year and no new significant robotic contracts forthcoming, MDA was already in the process of letting go some of its staff at its Brampton facility. Cuts in staff planned for this year will proceed but MDA president and CEO Dan Friedmand said when asked about further cuts expected next year, that they had been put on hold and that “this will employ 100 plus people”.
The initial SIS vehicle will then be followed up by another SIS vehicle, this one designed primarily to carry fuel and additional tools which will then be transfered to the initial SIS vehicle. Nearly all satellites launched today were not intended to be refuelled or serviced on-orbit. MDA will use its robotic expertise to build a suite of tools that will enable it to refuel and service a vast array of different satellites and extend the life of in-orbit satellites, something never done on the commercial side. The Hubble Space Telescope was repaired by astronauts but the SIS will be fully robotic and controlled from the ground. The SIS vehicle can service up to 10 satellites a year according to Friedman.
If the SIS vehicle is lost on launch MDA said they will have insurance in place to replace the lost vehicle.
MDA which sold its property information division last November for $850 million and is flush with cash, has been looking for ways to invest this money by acquiring other companies, notably in the U.S., or investing the money back in the company. Up until now it would not move forward with investing into on-orbit servicing until it had found an anchor tenant. MDA will spend $50 million per year for the next 4 years into the new venture. MDA values the services provided by them to Intelsat under the agreement at more than US$280 million over the timeframe during which services will be delivered.
Intelsat will also provide key marketing for MDA as part of the agreement with Intelsat taking the lead in acquiring U.S. government customers. A survey of the potential market has already been completed and key targets identified.
“On-orbit refueling and servicing is a game-changing innovation,” said Thierry Guillemin, Chief Technical Officer of Intelsat. “It is important for Intelsat, managing the largest commercial satellite fleet, to support technologies and tools that expand our capabilities in space. We intend to implement this technology as a tool in fleet management that will improve operational reliability, increase the return on our on-orbit assets, ensure good stewardship of the space environment and deliver this increased flexibility to our government customers as well.”
“We are very pleased to have Intelsat, the world’s leading provider of fixed satellite services, as the anchor customer for our new SIS offering and our partner in accessing the US government market,” said Dan Friedmann, President and CEO of MDA. “There is a clear need to service the world’s space infrastructure, both commercial and government. The combination of MDA’s unparalleled and proven space servicing capabilities and Intelsat’s commercial and government market presence is a good way to get this new service off the ground.”
This Friday, Frank Teti, Manager of Autonomous Robotics at MDA will make a presentation at the annual meeting of the Canadian Space Commerce Association in Toronto where he will introduce titled “Enhancing On-orbit Assets through Servicing and Orbital Debris Mitigation”.
With this agreement MDA has taken the global lead in the promising and potentially very lucrative new on-orbit servicing commercial space segment.