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.
The week of March 27th, 2017 has certainly a busy week for news in the space industry. Given that, here are some of the stories we’re currently tracking for the Commercial Space blog:
|A view of East Vancouver, including the Port of Vancouver, as seen from space. Photo c/o Urthecast.|
As outlined in the March 22nd, 2017 CNW press release, “UrtheCast Closes C$19.6 Million Offering of Common Shares,” the company has just closed its previously-announced bought deal public offering of 13,033,341 common shares. These shares were issued at a price of $1.50 per share, for aggregate gross proceeds of $19,550,012Mln CDN.
Those funds are in addition to the $17.6Mln CDN windfall the Federal government provided earlier in March.
As outlined in the March 14th, 2017 CBC News post, “Vancouver’s UrtheCast gets $17.6M from feds for Earth observation technology,” the Federal funding, provided under the Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative (SADI), will be used to develop “patented, cutting-edge technology” to be used in equip “a group of satellites for Earth observation and to make the high-resolution images easier for its customers to use.”
|The 3D printed spacecraft antenna interface bracket. Photo c/o 3DPrint.com.|
As outlined in the March 24th, 2017 3DPrint.com post, “Thanks to a Group Effort, 3D Printed Satellite Bracket Will Soon Go to Space,” the bracket, funded by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) under its Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) along with contributions from the Canada Makes’ Metal Additive Manufacturing Demonstration Program, still needs to be tested structurally in order to qualify to fly.
While Canada is a latecomer to the benefits of 3D printing, the technology has become very popular among international aerospace companies because of the cost savings, durability and quick turn around time.
As outlined in the post, “satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (an MDA subsidiary) kept costs and part mass down by using additive manufacturing to design the JCSAT-110A antenna tower, Poland’s first commercial satellite was created with a 3D printed housing and Boeing recently started to implement additive manufacturing into satellite production.”
Even NASA has taken note. As outlined in the December 2nd, 2015 www.3ders.org post, “Aerojet Rocketdyne completes first 3D printed parts for Orion spacecraft,” 3D printing technology is being used in a number of important NASA spacecraft.
|The ex-Alta 1. Graphic c/o AlbertaSat.|
As outlined in the March 21st, 2017 Satnews post, “University of Alberta’s Ex-Alta 1 Smallsat to Dig Into Space Weather,” the satellite, “is part of a newer generation of technologies that puts space exploration and research within reach of students and smaller startup companies.”
Ex-Alta 1 is part of the international QB50 mission of about 50 smallsats built at universities around the world. The Albertan satellite will examine will space weather and attempt to better understand the powerful forces that pose a threat to spacecraft and other satellites as well as vital power and electronic networks on Earth.
According to the article, a group of senior students involved with the project have created their own spinoff company, Promethean Labs, in order to offer expertise to clients in government and industry to commercialize the lessons learned from the project.
Landing a rocket properly, ready for refueling and reuse. “as God and John W. Campbell intended.” Photo of the SpaceX’ Falcon-9 historic first landing on an ocean barge on April 8th, 2016. Photo c/o SpaceX.
As outlined in the March 23rd, 2017 Space Daily post, “Russia, China could cooperate on developing reusable rockets,” the South China Morning Post has reported that China “is developing a rocket whose first stage will be designed to be reusable. Such a rocket will be capable of competing with the rocket designed by Elon Musks’s SpaceX.”
The article quoted Russian military expert Vasily Kashin as stating that, “the development of space carriers with returned stages is now considered as the most important direction for reducing costs of launching spacecraft into the orbit.”
The article goes on to state that China should co-operate with Russia, which began work on reusable rockets in mid-2016.
As outlined in the January 21st, 2016 Space News post, “French government commissions report on rocket reuse, competitiveness,” other countries such as France have also been working to ramp up reusable rocket programs.
For more, check out future posts in the Commercial Space blog.