Not many would have noticed, but buried deep in between the long, explicit details of the MDA-DigitalGlobe merger statement released on February 24 was a significant announcement. DigitalGlobe is working on its next-generation constellation called WorldView-Legion, which they say will be able to revisit some locations on Earth up to 40 times in a day. And if the merger comes through, it will be SSL, a MDA subsidiary, building this satellite system.
Revealing this during a joint call with MDA CEO Howard Lance addressing investors and press on February 24, DigitalGlobe CEO and President Jeffrey Tarr said the Westminster, Colorado-based the company had already started working with SSL on the WorldView-Legion constellation. Both Tarr and Lance refused to comment on how many satellites would comprise WorldView-Legion.
“MDA is committed to supporting DigitalGlobe’s ability to execute on our future constellation strategy. This includes initial investment in 2017 in the long-lead time elements of our next-generation satellite system, which we are calling WorldView Legion, targeted for launch in 2020,” Tarr said during the call.
While its WorldView-3 — the highest resolution satellite with imagery capabilities of up to 30 cm — was manufactured by Ball Aerospace & Technologies, its twin, the recently launched WorldView-4, was manufactured by Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
DigitalGlobe’s constellation of high-resolution satellites offers incredible accuracy, agility and collection capacity, imaging more of the world in the finest level of detail. The new WorldView Legion constellation, along with DigitalGlobe’s partnership with KACST and TAQNIA Space to build a fleet of small satellites, SCOUT, will allow it to maintain its leadership in high-resolution, sub-meter imagery and fend off rising small-satellite operators such as Planet that offer faster revisit rates.
Lower manufacturing costs
Interestingly, the investment in WorldView-Legion is not to exceed $600 million, excluding capitalized interest, which is considerably less than the combined cost of WorldView-1 and WorldView-2. Tarr said combining DigitalGlobe with MDA will enable it to reduce capital expenditures on future satellites and other infrastructure. WorldView Legion will supersede WorldView-1 and 2, launched in 2007 and 2009 respectively.
“Much more than just a replacement for WorldView-2 and WorldView-2, we expect this industry-leading multi-satellite system to more than double our high resolution capacity in regions where it matters most,” a DigitalGlobe statement following the announcement of its annual results said on Friday.
One of the important aspects of the merger touted by both companies is that the combination of MDA and DigitalGlobe’s technology offer attractive vertical integration benefits, including lower costs. It is anticipated that combining operations, including leveraging MDA’s satellite manufacturing capabilities to build future DigitalGlobe satellites, would save the combined entity about $50 million to $115 million annually.
“Combining MDA’s leadership in satellite design and manufacturing, radar capabilities, ground systems and systems engineering with DigitalGlobe’s world-leading constellation, archive, platform and advanced geospatial expertise and analytics will drive value and open channels for growth in adjacent markets. MDA’s industry-leading technology in large and small satellites and ground stations will enhance DigitalGlobe’s future constellations, positioning the combined company to extend its lead in the collection, dissemination and analysis of commercial Earth imagery collected with unrivalled resolution, accuracy, revisit and refresh of the most rapidly changing places on the planet,” the press statement from the companies announcing the acquisition had stated on February 24.
MDA’s small sat foray
MDA acquired SSL, formerly known as Space Systems/Loral, LLC, a California-based satellite manufacturer, in 2012 for $875 million, turning itself into a global communications player and opening doors for it to begin subcontracting US space projects like those for on-orbit satellite servicing through the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Since then it has been steadily boosting its US operations, particularly through the company’s “US Access Plan”. This included the creation of a San Francisco, California-based holding company (SSL MDA Holdings) to serve as the operating entity for “all MDA businesses, including both the US and Canada,” and putting a US citizen, Howard Lance, in charge as president and CEO last year.
SSL has acquired expertise in building small EO satellites through a contract with Skybox Imaging. This contract enabled it to obtain from Skybox – which was later acquired by Google and rechristened Terra Bella — certain intellectual property rights regarding its satellite design. Only this month Terra Bella was acquired by Planet, which is a major player in the small giant industry and only just launched 88 cubesats called Doves on the historic 104 launch by ISRO’s PSLV.