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In-space satellite servicing firm sues rival over theft of trade secrets

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(Reuters) — Space Systems/Loral is suing rival Orbital ATK over an alleged theft of proprietary data and business plans for an in-space satellite servicing technology, according to a complaint filed on Thursday.

The lawsuit is the second in six weeks involving the companies and their efforts to start a new industry servicing and repairing satellites in orbit.

At least four confidential SSL documents were viewed and distributed by an Orbital ATK employee working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where the data is stored as part of an ongoing SSL partnership with the U.S. space agency, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Orbital could not immediately be reached for comment.

SSL, a subsidiary of Canada-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., said it was informed of the data breach by NASA in December 2016.

Orbital acknowledged the unauthorized access of SSL’s data and fired the employee, but did not respond to questions about the scope of the breach or about five other Orbital employees whom NASA said may have read the SSL documents, the lawsuit said.

“With knowledge of this confidential information, competitors can modify their proposals to undercut any and all of SSL’s potential advantages,” the suit said.

The documents contain information about SSL’s technology for robotic satellite assembly, repair and servicing; research and development efforts; financing and business plans; procurement and performance strategies; customer development; and subcontractor and vendor relationships, the suit said.
SSL seeks a jury trial and economic damages in an amount to be determined.

NASA said it was informed by Orbital of the data breach in November and took immediate action to restrict access. An investigation is underway, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told Reuters in an email.
Orbital last month filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia to stop the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from awarding a contract to SSL to build the agency a satellite that can make service calls to other spacecraft.

Orbital says it unveiled a similar business last year and the DARPA program violates U.S. policy precluding the government from competing with commercial systems.

SSL, which in December won a NASA contract for another satellite servicing technology demonstration, says its system is different from the service Orbital is planning.