WorldView Legion Constellation
WorldView Legion Constellation
WorldView Legion is the next evolution of Maxar’s industry leading WorldView constellation. WorldView Legion is a fleet of high-performance satellites that dramatically expands our ability to revisit the most rapidly changing areas on Earth to better inform critical, time-sensitive decisions. 1)
Maxar Technologies Holdings Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, CA, USA, was created in 2017 as the parent company of MDA (MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.), SSL (Space Systems/Loral, Palo Alto, CA) MDA Holdings, Inc., DigitalGlobe of Westminster, CO, and Radiant Solutions of Herndon VA, USA. As of 8 April 2020, the sale transaction of MDA by Maxar Technologies to a consortium led by Toronto-based investment firm Northern Private Capital (NPC) has officially closed.
WorldView-Legion consists of six satellites planned to start launching in 2021 into a mix of sun-synchronous and mid-latitude orbits. These satellites will replace imaging capability currently provided by DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1, WorldView-2 and GeoEye-1 Earth observation satellites.
Maxar is manufacturing its next-generation satellite constellation, which will have its first launch early in 2021. The WorldView Legion constellation will initially include six, high-performance satellites that more than triple Maxar’s capability to collect sub 30 cm resolution imagery, the highest resolution commercially available. This capacity will be a game-changer for our mission partners: they will have dramatically more frequent images (up to 15 times per day) over the most in-demand areas throughout the day for their decision-making processes. This advanced constellation offers high-agility point collects for monitoring targets and large-area collects for mapping missions, enabling more persistent monitoring, near-real time change detection and timely analysis at scale. WorldView Legion will offer Maxar’s mission partners superior Earth Intelligence for their national security missions. 2)
Figure 1: Artist's rendition of the World Legion Constellation in orbit (image credit: Maxar)
WorldView Legion’s frequent revisit rates expand our impact on the mapping and monitoring missions we’ve always supported, and now enable significantly more accurate, comprehensive, and timely pattern-of-life and human geography analysis. Combining the most advanced geospatial analytics and expertise available with this new wealth of current content will equip customers with unrivaled insights and answers for a competitive edge.
Increased revisit means more relevant, meaningful insights to fuel:
• Vehicle navigation
• Environmental sustainability
• Global connectivity
• Disaster response
• National security.
Maxar has been operating the industry’s highest resolution commercial remote sensing systems since 1999, with the launch of Ikonos, and today operates four satellites: WorldViews 1, 2 and 3 along with GeoEye-1 (Figure 2). With over $1 billion of revenue in our Earth Intelligence business, and with customers around the world—including national governments—who rely on our ability to continue to serve their needs, in 2017 we began planning our next generation satellite constellation, WorldView Legion. 3)
We had four driving requirements. First, we had to assure continuity, which meant continuing to offer the highest resolution and most accurate commercial satellite imagery in the industry with collection and delivery characteristics matched to customer needs, and to begin launches in 2021. Second—as we will describe later—the land surface area of the planet is not uniformly interesting to paying customers. As a result, we wanted to maximize our imaging capacity over the parts of the world that would generate the most revenue, and to provide synoptic (contiguous) coverage of sufficiently large areas. Third, not everything happens at 10:30 AM, so we wanted to have the ability to image from dawn to dusk throughout the day. Fourth—and most importantly—since we’re in business to be profitable, we had to do all of this for less than our previous constellation cost, i.e., we had to be even more capital efficient, as this creates the capacity to further invest in growing our business.
Assuring continuity to match customer needs
Foundational to our business is providing timely data of the quality and other characteristics that our customers need. Key parameters are resolution, positional accuracy, capacity, and the ability to support simultaneous imaging while downlinking that imagery.
Resolution: A management principle is that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. In the world of satellite imaging, if you can’t recognize it, you can’t react to it—or you may be reacting to the wrong thing. Figure 3 provides an example of where 30 cm ground sampled distance is required, and we are increasingly seeing customer use cases across a wide range of industries that similarly require this level of spatial resolution. Moreover, it’s not enough just to have a small pixel size; the optical system has to provide sufficient resolution, there must be enough signal, and blur induced by all other optical or spacecraft disturbances must be kept in bounds.
This led us to require a system modulation transfer function (MTF) with a geometric mean of 9-10% at Nyquist. Image quality also drove a signal to noise ratio of >120 at a 15 degree sun elevation angle for a 15% reflective object in our panchromatic band; this was particularly important in light of our orbit choices as discussed subsequently. We had a parallel set of requirements for our 8 multispectral bands—which not only enable pan-sharpening but also a range of applications that utilize spectral analysis—including the ability to precisely align these bands with the Pan band, but to keep this discussion simple we are focusing just on the Pan band.
Positional Accuracy: For applications ranging from mapping to targeting, it’s not enough to have high resolution, but it is also essential to know the precise location of each pixel in an image on the ground. Historically we have required that our systems be able to support a 5 meter CE90 for each individual image, with the ability to post-process to 1 meter CE90 when suitable elevation data is available. Figure 4 illustrates why this is important.
This drove the choice of attitude and position navigation instruments on the spacecraft, calibration stability requirements, timing requirements, and certain aspects of ground processing software. At this level of accuracy, it’s simply not practical (or even possible) to skimp on the on-board navigation instruments and register against an accurate, global base layer—particularly as we are in the business of providing that accurate, global foundation base layer in the first place!
Collection Capacity: It’s one thing to build a satellite capable of taking a single picture, but one can’t build a business from that unless that one picture is unbelievably valuable—and to date, nobody has stepped up willing to pay the necessary price! To make money, a satellite constellation needs enough daily collection capacity to deliver a return on the investment required to build the constellation given the price customers are willing to pay for that capacity. It also has to be the right capacity in the right regions (and at the right resolution), which we will discuss in the next section. How much capacity? Fortunately, we have an excellent demand indicator—Maxar’s current collection capacity, which customers are paying for today. This sets a floor for the required system capacity. There are also regions where there is even more demand for capacity, so our goal was to maximize capacity in those regions.
Simultaneous Imaging and Downlink: While much of the world accesses services via the Internet, this isn’t always an option, particularly for defense customers. Maxar serves a number of allied governments around the world who need the ability to directly receive imagery from satellites along with the ability to uplink tasking requests to them. Additionally, we support mobile ground stations with similar functionality. This use case drives the need for our satellites to be able to image and downlink simultaneously (and independently), as illustrated in Figure 5.
Figure 5: Supporting simultaneous imaging and downlink to a customer site requires a narrow beam downlink antenna that is independently steerable from the primary sensor. This enables the sensor to point at successive targets while maintaining contact with the ground station (image credit: Maxar)
Broadcasting omnidirectionally is both power inefficient and a spectrum hog, so this drove the requirement for a narrow beam, high data rate downlink that can be pointed independently from the instrument, and the associated mechanical stability required so that pointing this downlink does not induce jitter that blurs the images being taken at the same time. Given that spectrum bandwidth is finite, being able to simultaneously downlink while imaging allowed us to maximize the amount of imagery we could collect and transmit in a single pass. It was also superior to approaches that divided time between imaging and downlinking (such as body pointed antennas) because it allows us to maximize the time spent in revenue producing activity (imaging) by minimizing unneeded maneuvers.
Maximizing Monetizable Imaging Capacity: The world is not uniformly interesting to paying customers, nor does it change with uniform frequency. Roughly 8% of the Earth’s land is populated, and over 50% of the population lives in 0.6% of the land1. The highest rate of change occurs where humans live (as illustrated in Figure 5), which drives collection frequency requirements. Roughly 95% of the world’s population lives in the band ±50° latitude.4) And while global mapping requirements create a need for global coverage, less than 10% of the land surface of the planet drives nearly all customer demand as weighted by revenue. This nonuniformity of demand drove two key requirements: synopticity and a mix of sun-synchronous and mid-inclination orbits.
Figure 6: The most frequent change occurs where most people live, as illustrated by this sample of Maxar’s Persistent Change Monitoring product, from a family of change products we have been providing to the US Government for over two decades (image credit: Columbia University)
Synopticity: Demand is clustered. For example, Figure 7 shows the size distribution of urban areas. If one is mapping to identify change, it’s important to capture the entire area at once, or at least within the time constant of the change that is being measured. This is particularly important when one is tracking activity, whether it is commercial or defense; if you can only see part of an area at a time, it’s next to impossible to keep track of moving objects. Only with synoptic coverage is it possible to get an accurate snapshot of all activity in a given area, as illustrated in Figure 8. This led to a requirement for single satellite synoptic coverage of 6000 km2 at National Imagery Interpretability Rating Scale (NIIRS) 5) 5 or better.
Having such synopticity has already been very useful for Maxar, enabling us to capture the hardest hit areas of the Bahamas in a single pass after Hurricane Dorian, the entire country of Qatar in a single pass in preparation for an event, and numerous defense use cases as well.
Mid-Inclination Orbits: Satellites in sun synchronous orbits spend much of their time outside of the ±50 degree latitude band where most people live, and correspondingly those areas that are most in demand to be imaged. Mid inclination orbits spend much more of their time over the interesting parts of the planet, but because the local time of imaging varies (unlike a sun synchronous orbit), a single satellite will experience “blackouts” (eclipses) over a given geography, i.e., there will be multi day periods when it is only in view of that geography during local nighttime. This fact drives a minimum number of satellites as well as driving the required signal-to-noise ratio to assure good image quality across a range of sun elevation angles throughout the day.
Figure 9 illustrates the first point. With a single mid inclination satellite, there are multiday long blackouts. With two satellites that are 180 degrees out of phase, when one is in blackout, the other is able to image. This in fact was what Maxar (then DigitalGlobe) had planned with its original QuickBird system of two spacecraft, but when the first QuickBird was lost in 2000 due to a launch failure, the remaining QuickBird was placed into a sun synchronous orbit. Building in resiliency against loss of a satellite drives a desire for three or more satellites, which also provides more opportunity for imaging at a range of sun elevation angles, as well as requiring less re-phasing of the orbit RAANs (Right Ascension of the Ascending Nodes) in the event of a satellite loss. Maxar selected four mid inclination satellites for Legion, in addition to two sun synchronous Legions to provide coverage of the higher latitudes.
Figure 9: At least two satellites are required in mid inclination orbits to avoid long “blackout” (eclipse) periods of low sun angle imaging. More than two satellites provide resiliency, as well as more diversity in sun elevation angles (image credit: Maxar)
It was also important to ensure that image quality does not degrade at lower sun elevation angles, which contributed to our requirement for signal to noise ratio. By doing so, we were able to achieve high image quality (measured by NIIRS) throughout the day, as shown in Figure 10, even for extremely low sun elevation angles.
Figure 10: The WorldView Legion sensor maintains high signal-to-noise ratio over a wide range of sun elevation angles, resulting in high image quality throughout the day for the mid inclination Legions (image credit: Maxar)
Figure 11: With sun elevation above 15º, at 36ºN latitude, on a representative day, the Legion constellation can image a point 6 times at ≤50cm (blue), 10 times at ≤1m (green), or 14 times at <≤1.3m (gold). There are ≥16 visits/day at 1.3m with sun elevation above 0 (“dawn to dusk”), image credit: Maxar
Providing intra-day revisit
The standard, historical orbit for earth observation satellites is a sun-synchronous orbit with a morning descending node; if you have only a single satellite, this clearly makes sense. The excellent reasoning for this goes back to the original Landsat program. A morning descending node optimizes for diurnal cloud cover to maximize cloud free viewing globally. A 10:30 sun synchronous orbit further is late enough in the morning to provide good illumination for most northern latitudes during winter.
However, while a sun synchronous orbit only sees the ground beneath it at a single local time per day, activity happens throughout the day. Having multiple spacecraft in mid inclination orbits, which we settled on for reasons of optimizing capacity, has the added benefit of providing imaging opportunities throughout the day. The six satellite Legion constellation provides up to 14 revisits per day above 15º sun angle between 0.3–1.3 meter GSD at 36ºN latitude throughout the day (Figure 11), with even more revisits at lower sun elevation angles which still provide good image quality as noted above.
Doing this all affordably: With these top-level trades behind us, we then set out to perform a series of optimizations around the spacecraft, considering aperture, agility, field of view, sensor type, collection rate, downlink data rate, etc. These weren’t performed in a vacuum, but rather were informed by cost data from our supplier base, since we were optimizing for the maximum revenue relative to system cost. For example, a larger aperture is generally better because it allows one to fly at a higher altitude to achieve a given resolution, which provides a wider field-of-regard and reduces angular agility requirements on the spacecraft—but it comes at a cost, which means that there is an optimum point in the price-performance curve, and this optimum point changes over time with changes in optics manufacturing technology. This allowed us to select an aperture for Legion that is slightly below 1 meter, compared with the prior WorldView satellites’ 1.1 meter apertures.
The specifications for the Legion spacecraft design to support the mission were carefully developed. Foremost the system needed to support the tasking and collection requirements of the commercial remote sensing business. This is principally achieved through highly accurate, stable (low jitter), agile stellar-inertial attitude knowledge and control with >10 different pointing modes to accommodate various use cases. To deliver the return on investment (i.e., to avoid a too rapid replenishment cycle), the spacecraft was developed for longevity and reliability using class B mission assurance standards. Inherent to this baseline, Legion utilizes a fully redundant design, with rad-hard/tolerant level 1/2 electronic parts and high technology readiness level (TRL), flight proven, heritage subsystem hardware and software elements and test equipment, as well as proven processes for producing the specific elements unique for the mission (e.g., solar panel, structure). The integrated system uses the established Maxar best commercial manufacturing capabilities and supply chain management to ensure quality and consistency. The overall development program employed traditional system engineering practices, including robust testing, verification and validation processes, along with manufacturing to cleanliness standards appropriate for optical payloads and integrated EMI/EMC (Electromagnetic Interference/Electromagnetic Compatibility) mitigations.
We implemented Legion’s requisite system performance holistically, beginning with state-of-industry fully redundant avionics and heritage software that can be reconfigured on-orbit for both the spacecraft and instrument. Legion’s configurable TT&C (Telemetry, Tracking & Command) and mission data architecture includes a gimbaled wideband mission data antenna and hemi/omni narrow-band communications with NSA Type-1/2 encryption. Robustly margined payload thermal control includes precision heater control, configurable conductive and radiative payload interfaces. Likewise, since the satellite is intended to be operated as part of a constellation, it includes propulsion for orbit establishment, maintenance, collision avoidance, and end of life (EOL) disposal. To maintain flexibility for both dedicated and secondary launch options, Legion is compatible with multiple prevailing vehicles (e.g., Falcon-9, Vega).
One trade was particularly instructive. Historically, Maxar satellites have used pushbroom scanners as these enable efficient area collection. However, the emergence of low-cost, large format area arrays has led some spacecraft designers to use them instead, in one of several modes as illustrated in Figure 12.
Table 1 illustrates the qualitative tradeoffs between these approaches. Maxar had used a version of push framer for its earliest (albeit unsuccessful) satellite, EarlyBird, back in 1997, as shown in Figure 13; we chose it for its low cost as EarlyBird was intended as an entry level capability. The pushbroom scanner has a much higher area collection rate, as shown in Figure 14, and this was the rationale for our having used it in all subsequent satellites.
Figure 13: Maxar utilized a push framer in 1997 for its EarlyBird satellite, given that the low cost of this approach was appropriate for an (albeit unsuccessful) entry-level capability (image credit: Maxar)
However, to understand the current cost effectiveness of these approaches, it’s easiest to compare two reasonably contemporaneous point designs: WorldView Legion and the Planet SkySat, since the costs for these have been described publicly. 6) 7) Legion is a pushbroom scanner and the SkySat is a push framer.
Table 2 illustrates that despite the lower per-satellite cost of the push framer, the pushbroom approach is substantially more cost-effective at area collection.
Table 2: When normalized to 50cm area collection, the Legion pushbroom scanning approach is 7.5X more cost effective than the SkySat multi-chip framer approach
* Amortized unit cost is total cost for the initial block, including non‐recurring engineering (NRE), divided by number of satellites in the block.
** Annualized cost is amortized unit cost times number of satellites to collect 1 million sqkm/day, divided by number of years of satellite lifetime.
Table 3: WorldView Legion is significantly more affordable than the prior generation (WorldView-4) while offering superior product quality and capacity
* Total system cost includes NRE (all spacecraft, launch, ground system upgrades and insurance).
Competition in the launch market allowed us to procure two launches for what previously was the price of one. Further cost efficiencies were a result of well-tuned commercial practices such as a high engineering-to oversight ratio that Maxar has used previously to build over 300 satellites for missions spanning communications to earth observation, deployed across LEO, MEO and GEO, for a broad array of commercial and Government customers. As has been previously discussed 8) 9) Maxar is the world leader in production engineering of quality, affordable space systems; Maxar currently has over 90 geosynchronous communications satellites on orbit today operating with an availability of 99.9996%.
Getting data to the user — Timeliness of Service
To satisfy time dominant use cases, in addition to having higher revisit it is also important to be able to get that data to the ground—and into the hands of end users—quickly. We looked at several approaches:
• Leverage our existing global network of data downlink stations;
• Direct downlink to users; and
• Relay via satellite.
There has been substantial progress in the latter area, such as the ESA/Airbus Space Data Highway, 10) and we believe that this may eventually become a very useful tool in certain situations. Ultimately, however, for reasons both of cost and technological maturity, we chose to leverage the first method, in addition to continuing our support for direct downlink as noted previously. We are augmenting our existing global ground network to provide better coverage of the mid inclination orbits. This will maintain our current realtime coverage over 40– 45% of the landmass, with over 90% real-time coverage in the areas of highest demand. This ground network supports rapid delivery to the Maxar cloud environment, and feeds our online platforms such as SecureWatch and Global EGD (Enhanced GEOINT Delivery) which serve over 350,000 end users with a median delivery time of under 1 hour for high priority imagery, and as fast as 11 minutes. We have also demonstrated <1 minute from the time of imaging to availability within an AWS S3 bucket by leveraging Amazon Ground Station. 11)
Meeting a 2021 launch date
The typical spacecraft build cycle at Maxar is 24-36 months. Key to this is starting from the perspective of the desired schedule and then working backwards to a supply chain that supports this schedule. This involves a rigorous process of eliminating components that have a very long lead time as well as proactive inventory management, which is possible because of the number of satellites that we build. Also, by placing experienced engineers in positions of authority, we are able to make complex technical decisions rapidly. This is done without sacrificing quality; our mission assurance processes have consistently enabled us to achieve high on-orbit availability.
The Legion spacecraft was placed on contract with Space Systems/Loral (SSL, now part of Maxar) in July 2017, and the instrument on contract with Raytheon in January 2018. The instrument critical design review (CDR) was held in late 2018 and the spacecraft CDR in mid 2019. We began spacecraft integration in November 2019, and are on track for our first launch in early 2021. Figure 14 shows a few examples of Legion hardware in various stages of construction.
Summary: Maxar is now into its 20th year of providing high-resolution, high-quality, high-quantity, spaceborne imagery to national and commercial customers around the world. It ushered in the “Age of Transparency” and forever changed the way we see, understand and monitor changes to our world. WorldView Legion is the latest addition to that 20 year history. Our conviction of the value that satellite imagery brings to the world is enabled by the choices we have made to create a profitable and self-sustaining business.
• July 8, 2020: Maxar has long been a leading provider of information about our changing planet, but that information has been limited to a 2D representation from satellite imagery. With the addition of Vricon’s unique 3D capabilities, Maxar will unlock a new dimension of information that will enhance the utility of our imagery for our customers, as well as meet the requirements of future technology and machine learning applications. 12)
- Now that Vricon’s products will be connected to Maxar’s entire 110-petabyte imagery archive, there will be faster, scalable production with global availability. With WorldView Legion, the imagery refresh rate and subsequent derived 3D models will allow customers to truly keep up with our changing planet at an unprecedented speed in the industry.
- Information derived from the third dimension is similar to the depth of information gleaned from skimming an outline vs an in-depth read of a publication. Let’s take for example the following evolution of mapping information as a roadmap for how each new layer of information significantly improves the utility of the map.
Figure 15: This is a basic 2D map, which is great for positional location and relative distance from one feature to another (image credit: Maxar)
Figure 16: If we add terrain shading and contours to the map, we now get a basic understanding of topography (image credit: Maxar)
Figure 17: Finally, with 3D data, the map now comes to life, providing a bird’s eye view where all features are recognizable, and the dramatic changes of the topography are plainly apparent (image credit: Maxar)
- However, Vricon’s technology goes beyond enhancing our mapping capability. The derivatives created from the Vricon 3D Surface Model such as Digital Surface Model (DSM), Digital Terrain Model (DTM), and 3D Vectors are critical to the advancement of emerging technologies like 5G signal propagation, autonomous vehicles, smart cities and internet of things (IoT), as well as guided munitions and disaster response planning and mitigation.
- 3D maps have become a foundational source of information for a range of visual and analytical applications. However, traditional sources of 3D information have been ineffective due to their limits in geographic scale, accuracy and currency. Customers need precise 3D information to understand where and how to deploy resources. For example, with the growth of 5G telecommunications, network planners and operators use propagation modeling software that needs exact information about urban, suburban and rural environments to deploy infrastructure in an effective and efficient manner. Civil and local governments use hydrological and simulation modeling software that requires highly accurate 3D models to assure proper emergency planning and response efforts.
- Derivative datasets from the core Vricon 3D Surface Model enable infrastructure and resource planning activities in a more timely and cost-effective fashion than existing, manually produced methods.
Military simulation and virtual training
- Faced with sophisticated adversaries, today’s warfighter requires familiarity with an area before deployment. Training, planning and rehearsal demand realistic 3D situational awareness—as well as the ability to georegister disparate information sources. Visualization is critical to success, yet traditional approaches are limited in scale and/or quality.
- Vricon’s accurate and realistic 3D representation of global battlefield environments enable life-like flight simulations and precise environments to train and simulate mobility and tactical planning. As proof of the importance of a synthetic training environment to the modern military, the U.S. Army awarded Vricon a $95 million contract for One World Terrain in 2019.
- The current workflow for the extraction of precision coordinates is time consuming and inefficient. Vricon’s 3D technology will drive tremendous efficiency improvements to the mensuration process by enabling users to extract x, y and z coordinates in a fast and reliable manner.
An accurate foundational layer for all Earth observation data
- With the proliferation of geospatial data and new sensors constantly expanding, there has never been a more pressing need for a common alignment layer for all Earth Observation data. Having a highly accurate foundational layer will enable customers to fully leverage the information captured within these images as well as the effectiveness of artificial intelligence (AI) to produce consistent results.
- Leveraging the technology behind Vricon’s Precision 3D Registration (P3DR), Maxar will be able to positionally correct all 2D images to become the geospatial reference standard for existing and next-generation location-based applications, accelerating the creation of a living digital model of the Earth—a concept we call The Digital Globe™.
• June 24, 2020: Space and satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies is taking full ownership of 3D analytics firm Vricon, a joint venture it has held with Swedish aerospace group Saab. 13)
- Space and satellite imagery company Maxar Technologies is taking full ownership of a joint venture it has held with Swedish aerospace group Saab, which the U.S. company expects will further its analytics offering.
- Maxar announced after the market closed on Tuesday that it intends to acquire full ownership of 3D analytics firm Vricon for about $140 million. The company is funding the transaction by issuing $150 million in new debt via senior secured notes.
- Saab and Maxar have worked to build Vricon over the past five years, Maxar CEO Dan Jablonsky told CNBC in an interview on Wednesday. But his company believes it is now time to bring Vricon fully into the company’s portfolio — especially as it plans to begin launching its next generation WorldView Legion imagery satellites with SpaceX next year.
- “The Vricon software works on stacks and stacks of Maxar’s imagery and the Legion program will supercharge the Vricon machine,” Jablonsky said. “We will be able to create photo-realistic, 3D accurate data models overnight essentially, by harnessing the two capabilities together.”
• April 10, 2019: Dan Jablonsky, the former DigitalGlobe president, took the helm at Maxar Technologies on Jan. 13, six days after the company announced the loss of its Worldview-4 satellite. Immediately, Jablonsky set to work evaluating the corporation’s structure and components, including satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral. Maxar’s decision in February to retain that business and rename it Maxar Space Solutions was followed by layoff and reorganization to turn Maxar into a single operating company except for MDA of Canada, which remains vertically integrated. 14)
- Nearly three months into the job, Jablonsky, an attorney and former U.S. Navy officer, told SpaceNews Maxar has a strategy to return to growth. The firm’s Worldview Legion constellation is a key part of the plan as is the recent reorganization. Contrary to rumors Maxar was struggling to pay for Worldview Legion, the company is “fully able to fund” the constellation and investigating launching the first group earlier than scheduled, Jablonsky said at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
Figure 18: Dan Jablonsky, president and CEO of MAXAR, shown here with a Maxar Space Solutions robotic arm at the 35th Space Symposium at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO, April 9, 2019 (photo: Keith Johnson/SpaceNews)
Interview of SpaceNews (Debra Werner) with Dan Jablonsky.
- It seems to be you’re stepping into a challenging job. Yes. But if it wasn’t challenging, they wouldn’t need me. Ships are built to go to sea and I’m built for an environment that is not completely safe and inside the harbor. I’m very comfortable with where we’re headed. I’ve got an amazing team. We’ve got the right strategy. We need to fix our capital structure as part of this. But I’m very bullish about the prospects for Maxar. Any good business starts with good customers and we have amazing customers, customers on the commercial side, the government side and in the international realm. We have amazing products and capabilities, including some things no one else on the planet can replicate right now. We’ve got amazing people. Now, we need to make that economic model work across the entire chain. We’ve got the right strategy to do that. I’m excited about that.
- Why did you reorganize Maxar? We are designing the organization to operate at high velocity and to react to market conditions and customer needs much more nimbly and quickly. Instead of being in the more siloed business unit structure with different strategies, we adopted a one Maxar operating model. It’s much faster. It also took out a lot of cost. We can retain the capabilities we have and be more efficient with them. We’re saving $60 million this year. We want to be good stewards of shareholder’s capital and $60 million is a lot of money.
- Why has Maxar decided to retain the business formerly called SSL? The day I took over, I conducted my own assessment of what it was worth to others, what it was worth to us and also what I thought the future that business was in terms of the end-to-end solutions we could provide as a Maxar portfolio. I went on a customer listening tour. I came to the conclusion, fully supported by the board, that SSL, now Space Solutions, as an integrated product line with GEO, MEO and LEO assets for both commercial and government customers running on two main product lines, a 1300-class and a Legion-class bus, was a very healthy business. They could play off each other on a smaller footprint and be much more robust inside that framework.
- We have some work to do to change market perceptions about us being around and we’re underway on that. But the pipeline is very good especially for the smaller class buses and for government work. That will help underwrite and create resiliency for the GEO communications part of the business. We’ll be profitable on just the GEO communications part in the near term. We’re not there yet. But those businesses can feed off each other really well. Our objective is to be nimble enough to flex up and flex down in the different programs. Depending on what happens with the GEO market. If it stays as low as it is, we’ll still be okay. If it has a resurgence, we expect that to accrete very profitably to the business.
- Are you trying to save or replace Worldview-4? We had a very unfortunate incident with Worldview-4 in January of this year. We lost the mission. That was a Lockheed Martin satellite procured by GeoEye, one of the companies DigitalGlobe acquired. The loss was related to the control moment gyros built by Honeywell. It was a terrible loss. This was a satellite in its second year of what we expected to be a ten to 15-year mission. And it impacted us as a business. There was a very highly accretive revenue stream that we’ve got to replace to in order to keep growing the business.
- One great thing is we were already two plus years underway on the Worldview Legion program. That had been designed as replacement capacity for Worldview-1 and Worldview-2 but with additional growth capacity in it. That will be used to recover from the Worldview-4 loss and to put us back on the path to growth. Also, since we’re building the satellites, we can add more to the constellation if the market demand signals are there. We don’t have those plans right now. We’re putting our money into the technology aspects of it within the original budget, more so than just more satellites on the chain. Right now, the technology is advancing faster so that we’re able to get the additional capacity without building more satellites. It’s very capital efficient for us.
- What impact is the loss having on your business? Our Earth observation, Earth intelligence business is very resilient. Even with the loss of Worldview-4, which was an important asset to us, that business will be flat this year. It’s not stepping down 15 or 20 percent or whatever, which you would normally think would happen with the loss of an asset like that. We’re able to keep it flat because we’ve built a resilient business. It didn’t impact the U.S. government. And a large portion of our business has been moving towards subscription and other products, which we are able to fill in a multi-constellation design.
- When do the first Worldview Legion satellites launch? Right now, the publicly released schedule is first quarter of 2021. We’re under contract with SpaceX for two launches. This is the first block of a multi-satellite constellation. We’re looking at ways to possibly pull that into the back end of 2020. We’ve been having meetings with others here today to see if we can pull those back to the left. Right now, we’re still on a path to get to first quarter of 2021, but we’re seeing if there are things we can do pull to the left, into 2020.
- I’ve heard rumors that you don’t have enough money for Worldview Legion. That is completely and utterly false. We’re building it on our own. We have more debt than we want to right now, which we’re working on in terms of getting our capital structure into a different place that would be better for our shareowners on the equity side. But we are fully able to fund the Worldview Legion constellation. This is the highest capex year for it. Raytheon is providing the instrument, a highly designed advanced instrument per our specifications. Space X is under contract for launches. We’re building the satellites on our own. I’m absolutely certain we’re going to do. Our credit facilities and other things provide us way more latitude than we need with this program.
- Are you having trouble paying Raytheon for those instruments? Absolutely not.
• December 3, 2018: Maxar Technologies plans to significantly reduce its capital expenditures after completing construction of its next-generation WorldView Legion constellation so that the company can focus on curbing its $3 billion debt load. 15)
- Howard Lance, Maxar CEO, said the continued languishing of the company’s satellite manufacturing division Space Systems Loral is a “distraction” from an otherwise growing company, and that divesting that division will also help pay down debt.
- In a presentation Nov. 28, Lance said unloading SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business will help Maxar de-lever regardless of how that plays out — be it through a sale of SSL or of the 29 acres of real estate it sits on in Silicon Valley.
- Maxar is in the process of building WorldView Legion, a constellation of numerous small satellites that will replace its three oldest satellites: the 11-year-old WorldView-1, 10-year-old GeoEye-1, and nine-year-old WorldView-2 satellites. Ball Aerospace built the first two WorldView satellites, while General Dynamics built GeoEye-1.
- Maxar estimates building WorldView Legion — for which the number of satellites has not been announced — in-house will more than halve costs compared to the larger, earlier satellites. Whereas GeoEye-1, WorldView-1 and -2 cost more than $1.3 billion to build and launch, WorldView Legion has a projected price tag of $600 million.
• March 14, 2018: DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies Ltd. company (formerly MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.), today announced it has contracted with SpaceX to launch the next-generation WorldView Legion satellite imaging constellation. 16)
- DigitalGlobe and SpaceX are two of the leading new space economy innovators, working together for the first time to launch the WorldView Legion constellation. The initial block of the multi-satellite WorldView Legion constellation will be launched by two flight-proven Falcon 9 rockets in 2021.
• October 11, 2017: DigitalGlobe’s selection of Raytheon Space Systems to manufacture high-resolution imagers for the WorldView Legion constellation shows Raytheon is making headway in its effort to use expertise honed through decades of government work to attract commercial customers. 17)
- ”We’re leveraging 45 years of extensive global experience in space imaging to provide DigitalGlobe with an unmatched view of the world from space,” Rick Yuse, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems president, said in a statement.
- Prior to the WorldView Legion contract announced Oct. 10, Raytheon Space Systems worked exclusively under government contracts. In recent years, however, the firm has identified promising commercial activities to pursue as it seeks to diversify its business and gain a foothold in the burgeoning commercial Earth imagery business.
- Under the DigitalGlobe contract, Raytheon will build telescopes, detectors and associated electronics, which it will deliver to Space Systems Loral, the WorldView Legion satellite integrator. SSL’s parent company, Maxar Technologies Ltd., formerly known as MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., completed its merger with DigitalGlobe on 5 Oct. 2017.
- “DigitalGlobe is proud to select Raytheon to develop the imaging payloads for our next-generation WorldView Legion satellite constellation,” Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe founder, CTO and executive vice president, said in a statement. “We have exceptional confidence in the quality, performance and value of Raytheon’s instrument design, which will give our customers even greater insight into global events of significance and allow them to make critical decisions with confidence for many years to come.”
- With the new Raytheon imagers, WorldView Legion satellites will capture twice as much multispectral imagery with 50 cm resolution and panchromatic imagery with 30 cm resolution as DigitalGlobe currently obtains with its WorldView 3 and WorldView 4 satellites. In addition, DigitalGlobe will use the new Raytheon imagers to observe specific areas on the ground three to four times as often as it can with WorldView 3 and WorldView 4, according to the statement.
• July 6, 2017: DigitalGlobeInc, the global leader in Earth imagery and information about our changing planet, today announced it has selected Space Systems Loral (SSL) to build the spacecraft for its next-generation WorldView Legion constellation, which will deliver industry-leading resolution and accuracy, enable high-revisit applications, and assure service continuity for the company’s customers through 2030. 18)
- SSL has entered into a firm-fixed price contract with DigitalGlobe to build the WorldView Legion satellites—the first of which is planned to launch in 2020—to replace the WorldView-1, WorldView-2, and GeoEye-1 satellites. The WorldView Legion constellation will double DigitalGlobe’s capacity to collect 30 cm and multi-spectral imagery starting in 2020. Once combined with DigitalGlobe’s existing WorldView satellites and the forthcoming Scout small satellite constellation, DigitalGlobe will image the most rapidly changing areas on Earth as frequently as every 20 to 30 minutes, from sunup to sundown. These capabilities will provide even greater insights into global events of significance, giving customers the ability to make critical decisions with confidence when time is of the essence.
- “WorldView Legion represents DigitalGlobe’s commitment to meet the demanding and evolving needs of our diverse customer base for many years to come, building upon our excellent track record of performance, best-in-class satellites and ground infrastructure, and deep understanding of government mission needs and commercial applications,” said Dr. Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe Founder, EVP & CTO. “We have great confidence in the quality, value, and reliability of the SSL spacecraft.”
- “The award of this contract with DigitalGlobe demonstrates our emerging leadership in building satellite constellations and Earth observing spacecraft,” said Richard White, President of SSL Government Systems. “DigitalGlobe is known as a global leader in advanced geospatial solutions, and we are pleased that they have placed their trust in our proven performance and state-of-the-art design for a fleet that will provide exceptional agility and persistence.”
• February 24, 2017: Before going public with their plans to merge, Canada’s MDA Corp. and DigitalGlobe were already working together on a next-generation imaging constellation called WorldView Legion they say will be able to revisit some locations on Earth up to 40 times in a day. 19)
- The new constellation is being designed to protect DigitalGlobe’s advantage in high-resolution, sub-meter imagery and fend off rising small-satellite operators such as Planet that offer faster revisit rates.
- Chief executives from MDA and DigitalGlobe mentioned the future constellation during a Feb. 24 conference call detailing MDA’s just-announced agreement to acquire DigitalGlobe in a $3.6 billion deal that includes $2.4 billion in cash stock and the assumption of $1.2 billion in debt. The companies anticipate saving $50 million to $115 million annually by combining operations, including leveraging MDA’s satellite manufacturing capabilities to build future DigitalGlobe satellites.
- “MDA is committed to supporting DigitalGlobe’s ability to execute on our future constellation strategy,” Jeffrey Tarr, president and CEO of Westminster, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, said during the call. “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.”
- MDA purchased California-based satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (SSL) in 2012, and has been steadily pursuing more U.S. business, particularly through the company’s “U.S. Access Plan” — a strategy that included putting a U.S. citizen, Howard Lance, in charge as president and CEO last year.
- SSL gained considerable expertise in building small Earth-imaging satellites through a contract with Terra Bella to build 18 SkySats, each of which is about the size of a mini-fridge. Terra Bella, then known as Skybox Imaging, gave SSL certain intellectual property rights regarding its satellite design, enabling SSL to create more small satellite products.
• On Feb. 21, 2016, DigitalGlobe Inc. signed an agreement with the government of Saudi Arabia forming a joint venture to build at least six small optical Earth observation satellites to complement DigitalGlobe’s current fleet of large, high-resolution spacecraft. DigitalGlobe’s partners in the venture are Taqnia Space, owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund; and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), which is already a DigitalGlobe Direct Access Partner receiving imagery directly from DigitalGlobe satellites. 20)
- The partnership “offers DigitalGlobe customers a complementary source of data to address new use cases, while expanding the image catalog of DigitalGlobe’s Geospatial Big Data platform,” DigitalGlobe said, adding that the constellation would be “highly complementary to the next-generation satellite architecture” the company is now designing.
Figure 19: Our DG constellation roadmap will extend our industry leadership well into the next decade (image credit: DigitalGlobe)
Note: The WorldView-4 (former GeoEye-2) spacecraft was launched on November 11, 2016 (18:30 UTC) on an Atlas-V 401 vehicle of ULA (United Launch Alliance) from VAFB, CA, SLC-3E (Space Launch Complex-3East). 21)
The Maxar company SSL (Space Systems Loral) of Palo Alto, CA, now renamed to ”Space Solutions”, is designing and developing the WorldView Legion's satellites.
Figure 20: Legion hardware under construction. (a) Legions buses 1, 2 and 3 being integrated; (b) antenna pattern testing; (c) structure testing; and (d) Legion telescope (image credit: Maxar, Ref. 3)
More information on the spacecraft and imager instrument will be provided when available.
Launch: In 2018, Maxar awarded a contract to SpaceX to launch the WorldView Legion satellites in two launches on a Falcon-9 vehicle. The first launch of two satellites is expected in 2021.
Orbits: A mix of sun-synchronous and mid-latitude orbits are planned for the WorldView Legion Constellation. — A launch into a polar orbit would require the Falcon-9 rocket to lift off from Vandenberg, a military base on California’s Central Coast, while satellites heading into a mid-latitude orbit could potentially launch from Cape Canaveral.
Already in October 2017, the Raytheon Company was selected by DigitalGlobe, Inc. as the next-generation WorldView Legion satellite imaging constellation payload provider. Under the contract, Raytheon will deliver the telescopes, detectors and combined electronics to Space Systems Loral (SSL), the WorldView Legion space vehicle integrator. 22)
Raytheon's new payload doubles DigitalGlobe's capacity to capture multispectral and 30 cm imagery, while tripling to quadrupling the company's capacity to image high-demand areas. Once the WorldView Legion constellation is on orbit, DigitalGlobe's combined constellation will be able to image the most rapidly changing areas on Earth every 20 to 30 minutes, from sunup to sundown. WorldView Legion will begin launching in 2021.
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).