NRO awards major satellite contracts to BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet

Capitalism in space: The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) today announced major satellite contracts worth billions of dollars with three different commercial satellite constellations, BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet, to provide it high resolution reconnaissance imagery over the next decade.

You can also read BlackSky’s press release of the contract award here.

The contracts are part of an NRO’s program, dubbed Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL), to shift from building its own reconnaissance satellites to buying the services from the private sector.

EOCL will support the mission needs of NRO’s half-million intelligence, defense, and federal civil agency users over the next decade. It will also help ensure long-term, continued support for the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry. EOCL is effective as of of May 22, 2022 with a five-year base and multiple one-year options with additional growth through 2032.

The five year contract with one year options through 2032 applies to all three satellite companies, and guarantees that all three will require extensive launch capabilities to keep their satellite constellations operating. The rising demand for rockets, both large and small, will thus continue.

Military satellite imagery to be obtained from competitive commercial market

Capitalism in space: The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is shifting how it gets the government’s military satellite surveillance imagery so that instead of having a long term contract with one company, multiple satellite companies will compete to provide the data.

Under this new imagery procurement, the NRO plans to buy products from multiple vendors and move beyond the current single-supplier arrangement that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency signed more than a decade ago with DigitalGlobe, which is now Maxar Technologies. The NGA in 2017 turned over responsibilities for commercial imagery procurement to the NRO, while the NGA remains the primary buyer of commercial geospatial data analytics.

The NRO is expected to select at least three U.S. suppliers and structure the program with onramps for new providers. The agency also will require vendors to sign “end user license agreements” so imagery can be shared across government agencies without additional licensing fees.

This change illustrates how other government agencies are following NASA’s lead and shifting from controlling everything to buying the needed product from the open market. While NRO was getting imagery before from a commercial company, Maxar, depending on a single vendor limited competition and innovation while raising costs.

Buying the data from multiple companies means that NRO will get more choice for less cost.

Commercial satellite launched only weeks ago fails

Capitalism in space: A new geosynchronous satellite intended to augment the SiriusXM radio service has failed only six weeks after launch on a Falcon 9 rocket.

Built by Maxar in Palo Alto, California, the SXM 7 satellite successfully launched Dec. 13 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station into an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit, then used its on-board engine to reach an orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator, where

SiriusXM announced the “failure of certain SXM 7 payload units” in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday. “An evaluation of SXM 7 is underway,” the company said. “The full extent of the damage to SXM 7 is not yet known.”

Though neither SiriusXM nor Maxar have released any details on the failure, they have also said the failure is unrelated to the launch. Their use of the word “damage” however is intriguing, as it suggests a kind of catastrophic failure, such as an impact from a piece of space junk.

We don’t know yet however and can only wait for more information. Losing a satellite like this only weeks after launch however is a big deal, as these satellites are now built to last one to two decades, at a minimum. Insurance will pay for a replacement, but it could take at least one to two years to launch it.

Maxar wins NASA contract to build robot for assembling test large antenna dishes in orbit

NASA has awarded the private company Maxar a contract to build a robot that will assemble a test large antenna dish in orbit.

The robot will fly as part of the Restore-L mission, whose primary robotic mission goal will be to refuel Landsat-7, originally launched in 1999.

Al Tadros, Maxar’s vice president of space infrastructure and civil space, said the NASA contract funds SPIDER through completion. It also funds a SPIDER demonstration with Tethers Unlimited’s MakerSat to build a 10-meter boom in space and attach it to Restore-L, he said.

Maxar’s demonstration contract calls for the in-orbit assembly of multiple antenna reflector dishes into one single reflector. Communications satellites use reflectors to beam television channels and internet connectivity to users. Maxar said SPIDER’s demonstration could show how commercial satellites and telescopes could carry fixtures currently too large to fit inside rocket payload fairings.

Restore-L was originally targeted for a 2022 launch, but this new contract implies that it might launch later to include this additional test.

The decision by the Trump administration to go all-in with the use of private space to get things done is bearing fruit. In the past, when NASA insisted that it build everything, it didn’t have the resources to do very much. Now that it is harnessing the skills of many independent companies to build many different things (from launchers to landers to rovers), suddenly more is getting done for less in less time. For example, Restore-L is a NASA built project that has taken more than a decade to reach orbit. NASA has now added a private component that it intends to fly in five years.

NASA awards Maxar Gateway power/communications contract

The never-ending boondoggle: NASA this week awarded the company Maxar its first official Lunar Gateway contract to develop the power, propulsion, and communications systems for the station.

Interestingly, the contract is structured somewhat similar to the commercial contracts for ISS cargo and crew.

This firm-fixed price award includes an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity portion and carries a maximum total value of $375 million. The contract begins with a 12-month base period of performance and is followed by a 26-month option, a 14-month option and two 12-month options.

Spacecraft design will be completed during the base period, after which the exercise of options will provide for the development, launch, and in-space flight demonstration. The flight demonstration will last as long as one year, during which the spacecraft will be fully owned and operated by Maxar. Following a successful demonstration, NASA will have the option to acquire the spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway. NASA is targeting launch of the power and propulsion element on a commercial rocket in late 2022. [emphasis mine]

It is fixed-price, and Maxar will own the design with the ability to sell it to others as well as NASA.

The problem is that Maxar will not be building something that others might want. Their only customer will be NASA, and the design will be focused entirely to NASA’s needs in building their Gateway boondoggle. I am pessimistic anything productive for the future of space travel will come from this.

Moreover, the highlighted words reveal the corrupt nature of this deal. Development could go on forever, and should it do so, do not be surprised if the contract’s fixed price nature gets changed.

Our federal government, including NASA, is very corrupt. They are not interested in the nation’s interest, only the interests of themselves and the contractors they work hand-in-glove with in DC.

DARPA’s satellite servicing mission adrift

Capitalism in space? DARPA’s program to test a satellite servicing mission appears in serious and complex trouble with the termination by Maxar (previously called SSL) of its contract to build the structure, or “bus”, of the robot.

What makes this more complicated is that the company building the actual servicing payload is continuing its work.

While Maxar will no longer be providing the satellite bus, work on the servicing payload continues. Among the companies involved in that effort is Praxis, a company handling planning for mission operations of the RSGS servicing system, such as how the system will safely grapple the target satellite. “For our day-to-day operations, that hasn’t really affected us. We’re pretty far along on the payload development,” said Tony Marzi, general manager of Praxis, during a presentation at the MIT New Space Age Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here March 15.

DARPA is thus calling for proposals to launch this payload.

The irony here is that this DARPA project was under criticism from the start, even to the point that a competing satellite servicing company, Orbital ATK, sued the agency. That company, now part of Northrop Grumman, was building its own privately funded servicing robot, and considered DARPA’s effort to be unfair in that it provided direct government subsidies to its competitors.

While Orbital ATK lost its suit, it now appears it has won the competition — assuming it eventually launches its own mission.

Maxar cancels its DARPA satellite servicing mission

Capitalsm in space: Maxar today announced it is canceling its DARPA mission to develop and fly a robotic mission aimed at servicing geosynchronous satellites.

Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral division terminated an agreement to build DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites spacecraft Jan. 30, leading to a potential recompete of the program. Maxar said it also canceled a contract with Space Infrastructure Services, a company it created that would have commercialized the RSGS servicer after a DARPA demonstration, starting with an in-orbit refueling mission for fleet operator SES. Both were awarded in 2017.

…The cancellations come amid an ongoing divestment of SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business, which has weighed down Maxar’s financial performance due to a protracted slump in commercial orders.

More background information can be found here.

It seems that the industry’s increasing shift from a few large geosynchronous satellites to small smallsats in low Earth orbit is the real cause of this decision. Maxar has realized that there won’t be that many satellites in the future to service, since the smallsat design doesn’t require it. Smallsats aren’t designed for long life. Instead, you send them them up in large numbers, frequently. Their small size and the arrival of smallsat rockets to do this makes this model far cheaper than launching expensive big geosynchronous satellites that are expected to last ten to fifteen years and would be worth repairing.

Thus, the business model for commercial robotic servicing has apparently vanished, from Maxar’s perspective. Other servicing projects however continue. From the second link:

Northrop Grumman said it plans to launch its first Mission Extension Vehicle to dock with Intelsat-901 and take over orbital station-keeping duties, extending the satellite’s service life by several more years.

Another up and coming player, Effective Space, is developing a satellite servicing vehicle called Space Drone, to provide satellite life extension services.

And SSL [a Maxar subdivision] is under contract to NASA to build the Restore-L satellite servicing spacecraft, slated to launch in 2020. Restore-L will be owned by NASA, however, and will operate in low Earth orbit, not the geosynchronous arc as was the plan for RSGS.

The last mission is intriguing because it could lay the groundwork for a robotic servicing mission to Hubble. It is being led by the same NASA division that ran all of the shuttle servicing missions to Hubble, and is using many of the engineering designs that division proposed when it was trying to sell a Hubble robot servicing mission back in 2004.

MDA becomes Maxar

Capitalism in space: The space company MDA has acquired DigitalGlobe and reorganized itself under the new name Maxar Technologies.

The acquisition and name change appears to be part of a strategy to make this long time Canadian company an international company able to do U.S. military missions.

MDA undertook a major corporate reorganization in May 2016 as part of its “U.S. Access Plan” strategy, including the appointment of Mr. Lance and the formation of SSL MDA Holdings, Inc., with its headquarters in San Francisco, which manages and controls all of the Company’s operations across Canada, the U.S. and internationally. This process was completed under the guidance and approval of the U.S. Department of Defense, whereby SSL MDA Holdings operates under a Security Control Agreement. This structure allows the Company to pursue and execute U.S. government programs that require security clearances.

Maxar’s SSL division is the one building a satellite servicing mission for DARPA, and has been sued (unsuccessfully) by Orbital ATK for getting favorable treatment by the government, including federal monies, even though it is a foreign company. This reorganization apparently is aimed at eliminating Maxar’s foreign status in the U.S.

The name change also succeeds in making the company more marketable. MDA, which stands for MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd, always sounded like an accountant firm. Maxar is much better.