MDA eyes ‘new space economy’ with $42M acquisition of Kanata’s Neptec

Canadarm

With a combined eight decades of experience in Canada’s space sector, the newly-merged team of MDA and Ottawa-based Neptec Design Group are set to tackle an emerging market orbiting around the earth – and beyond.

Neptec announced last week it had been acquired by MDA, itself a Maxar Technologies company, in a deal worth $42 million. MDA president Mike Greenley tells OBJ that Neptec had been shopping itself to buyers since the start of the year, believing a new owner was the best path to scaling up. MDA was the lucky winner of the bid, he says, uniting the Richmond, B.C. firm with the Kanata-based company.

“We share a common history in Canada as one of the longest serving countries in space,” he says.

MDA has a sizeable presence in Ottawa as well, with radar satellite fields in Ottawa and Gatineau as well as a government relations office on Slater Street. Founded in 1969, the space robotics firm is most well-known as the developer of the two Canadarms, with the second currently limbed onto the International Space Station.

But what good are a set of arms without a decent pair of eyes? Greenley says that’s where Neptec comes in. The local firm, with some 100 employees between its Kanata and U.K. operations, has developed vision technology including LiDAR for the International Space Station.

Satellite up-keep

The combined weight of Neptec and MDA’s vision and robotics expertise has already been brought to bear on a new contract in the U.K.

Leveraging Neptec’s sizeable presence across the pond, MDA announced just a few days after the acquisition that it had landed a $1.7 million contract with the U.K. Space Agency to develop robotics and vision systems necessary to service, repair and refuel satellites in-orbit. Neptec also landed a similar contract to provide vision systems for a “space drone” tasked with similar objectives for a British communications firm.

It’s this market – on-orbit servicing – that’s got Greenley so excited about the two firms’ merger. Many of the satellites in the sky today were not developed to last more than 15 years. Instead of letting them fall back to earth or drift off as space junk, a new commercial market has formed around maintaining our existing space infrastructure.

“There really is a new commercial space economy that’s emerging in orbit around the earth,” Greenley says.

MDA is clearly putting this “new space economy” high in its priorities. On Friday the firm announced Michael Rack would lead its newly-created commercial division in September.

In addition to on-orbit servicing, Greenley points to asteroid mining and in-space manufacturing as emerging fields that MDA is now equipped to service.

Canadian pressure

While MDA and Neptec are seeing a variety of activity in the U.K., there are questions about how involved Canada will be in establishing the next frontier. While the U.K. has recently released an official space strategy that lists on-orbit servicing as a priority, Greenley says there’s been pressure nationally for Canada to focus its astrological ambitions.

Plans for a new Canadian space strategy are delayed by more than a year, but Minister of Science and Innovation Navdeep Bains recently said the formal documents would be unveiled in the coming months.

One of the upcoming opportunities is the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, or Deep Space Gateway. While the ISS orbits around earth, this station would orbit the moon, making it possible for scientists to develop regular operations on a lunar base and creating a pitstop for eventual missions to Mars.

Canada has previously awarded contracts to both Neptec and MDA to explore the possibility of deep-space exploration. Neptec won a series of contracts from the Canadian Space Agency earlier this year, one of which was to look at the possibility of putting an autonomous rover on the moon.

With Canada’s history of developing advanced space robotics such as the Canadarm, Greenley says the international community will turn to Canada in the coming years to develop tech for the Deep Space Gateway.

“We’re very hopeful that Canada will agree to participate,” Greenley says, making clear that Neptec and MDA would be more than happy contribute sensors and robotics to help the next generation to boldly go.

Neptec did not immediately return a request for comment on this story.