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NorStar Space Data Inc Gains IBM, Boeing as Partners

By Caleb Henry | September 17, 2015
      Stewart Bain CEO NSDI

      Stewart Bain, CEO of NSDI. Photo: NSDI

      [Via Satellite 09-17-2015] IBM and Boeing have joined NorStar Space Data Inc. (NSDI) as partners for its NorthStar constellation of 40 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The two companies will help handle the ground segment and analytics for the satellite network, which is split between Earth Observation (EO) and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data.

      “There is a big part of our system that has to do with data analytics and we are talking with very important partners there on how we are developing that part of our system,” Stewart Bain, CEO of NSDI, told Via Satellite. “On the data infrastructure side, we have been talking to IBM and with their advanced analytics software. IBM is very capable of handling and analyzing large amounts of data. We’ve started discussions with them and we are interested in seeing where that goes … on the mission operations side we’re very much engaged with Boeing.”

      In addition to these new partners, NSDI announced earlier this year that it had teamed up with NovaWurks with the intention of using the company’s Satlet technology to build its spacecraft. NovaWurks can assemble its Hyper-Integrated Satlet (HISat) in space to modularly construct a variety of space missions. Bain said the HISat design opens up new ways for the company to conceive of mission infrastructure. NSDI also joined the Visual Analytics Research and Development Consortium of Canada (VARDEC), a consortium of companies focusing on advanced visual analytics, in April 2015.

      NSDI estimates its constellation will downlink more than 3 Gbps of data, equating to 259,200 Gb every day. Bain said IBM will enable the company to tackle data management from its dual-purpose spacecraft, and that NSDI is discussing ground system support with Boeing. Other partners have not yet been named, but Bain said they would help access different geographic areas or the infrastructure necessary to bring customer voices into the design. The company hopes to line up additional partnerships during the remainder of 2015 to set the foundation for NorthStar to go forward.

      “By the end of this year we would like to have all of our partner organizations for the preliminary phase of the program signed up, to be officially launching that part of the work, and to have all of our partner organizations in the tent to get this project off the ground,” said Bain.

      The satellites in NSDI’s NorthStar constellation are expected to weigh about 750 kilograms each, and have a design life of eight years. Bain said NorthStar is the culmination of an idea that took 18 months to establish. The idea for the constellation stemmed from conversations between the United States Department of Defense (DOD) Special Operations leadership and KinetX, the latter of which is responsible for the creation of NSDI.

      Each satellite will carry an EO payload consisting of both hyperspectral and infrared imaging sensors on the nadir deck. On the zenith deck, satellites will carry optical payloads to monitor orbits in LEO, Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) and — to a certain extent — Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). Bain said the company plans to refresh satellites in the constellation routinely, rather than launching them all at once. The goal is to scale toward Full Operational Capability (FOC) by 2020.

      Bain said NSDI already has customers that have expressed interest in NorthStar data.

      “The areas of interest primarily are: the oil and gas sector as well as forestry, agriculture and water management. They are very interested in what we can do, and we’ve actually started some projects to look at addressing some challenging issues,” he said of the EO business.

      He said NSDI is pursuing SSA customers in government and industry.

      Bain estimated NorthStar will cost approximately $3.5 billion dollars. NSDI is seeking to raise money to fund the constellation and will look to convince both companies and investors that there is a captive market desiring its satellite services. Among NSDI’s leadership team is Charles Sirois, senior financial advisor, who, until recently, was chairman of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, one of the largest banks in Canada. In the past, Sirois put together financing for Orbcomm and also put together the funding for TRW’s proposed Non-Geostationary Orbit (NSGO) constellation in the 1990s called Odyssey — a then source of competition for Iridium. He raised $4 to $5 billion to launch that constellation, although it never took off.

      To further develop customer awareness prior to launching the FOC constellation, NSDI is planning demonstrations of either one or both of its satellite capabilities. Bain said EO demonstrations could take the form of an initial demo satellite or airborne trials. An SSA demo is being considered for late 2017, he said. NSDI’s goal for Initial Operational Capability (IOC) is late 2018.

      “In this early stage of the project, we are looking at partner organizations who share our philosophy; buy into the business model, the concept, architecture and the team, and say, ‘I’ll participate with money and services in kind to support a preliminary phase of work.’ Ideally, partners will bring access to clients and market sectors from different geographic regions. That way, we can essentially capture a broad audience and demonstrate that we have something serious to offer as a commercial viable entity. Ideally, we will be working with partner clients and industrial partners who can help develop clients during the development stages of the project,” explained Bain.

      He added that the NSDI team has studied both successful and unsuccessful business models for NSGO systems in planning NorthStar. This led to an emphasis on having multiple sources of revenue and, hence, the variety of payloads. Bain estimated revenue would be approximately 60 percent EO and 40 percent SSA.