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What Lies in the Future for the Small Satellite Conference?

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
August 14, 2023
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What Lies in the Future for the Small Satellite Conference?
Small Satellite conference logo.
Image credit: Small Satellite Conference.

This year’s Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah was the largest and best attended in history. But, is it about to get a lot larger as the space industry grows around the world? And what underrepresented country could boost attendee numbers the most? Let’s take a look.

The annual gathering drew 3,700 attendees from 44 countries, conference administrator Marianne Sidwell told Parabolic Arc. The number surpassed the pre-COVID pandemic record of 3,500, which was set in August 2019. A total of 266 exhibitors rented booths at the conference – another record for the annual gathering.

As has been the case in the past, most participants appeared to come from North America and Europe, with a smaller but significant contingent from Japan. These are regions where most small satellites (SmallSats) are being built and launched. The companies, space agencies and universities in these areas have funding to send participants to the conference and to rent booths to promote their wares.

As has also been true in the past, there wasn’t much representation from the major space powers of India, China, or Russia. The interesting question is whether this situation is likely to change in the years ahead, especially as the Indian and Chinese space programs continue to grow.

“I do think there’s an increase in international participation, but the other questions I can’t really answer, as I’m not really in the realm as an event planner,” Sidwell said, when asked about the three countries.

Small Satellite Launch Vehicle lifts off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on February 10, 2023. Image credit: ISRO.

India’s commercial push

Until recently, India’s space program was government-run. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) built and launched the nation’s communications and remote satellites, conducted scientific missions, and performed research and development activities. ISRO ran on a relatively shoestring budget compared with the leading space agencies abroad.

That has all changed in recent years. The ISRO has been getting larger budgets for missions to the Moon and Mars, and its latest lunar mission, Chandrayaan-3, is expected to land next week. India is also seeking to become the fourth nation, behind the United States, Russia, and China, to have the ability to launch astronauts into orbit in its Gaganyaan program.

While the ISRO has grown, India has also been busy commercializing its space program by loosening restrictions on the private sector. It is estimated that at least 140 private companies have sprung up to build satellites, develop launch vehicles, and seek their fortunes in other space-related activities.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) into India’s space industry reached $110 million in 2022. Current policy allows FDI of up to 100 percent into satellite manufacturing and operations, but only through a government-approved process.

India’s government is preparing to release a new FDI policy designed to reduce those restrictions and bring more funding into the private space sector. The new funding could help overcome the financial barriers that have kept Indian companies from attending the Small Satellite Conference and other foreign gatherings in large numbers.

How soon this might occur remains to be seen. A lot of the initial investment would go to developing domestic space capabilities, so it’s uncertain how long it would take for companies to have products to promote as well as the funding to participate in more foreign conferences.

The ISRO is also moving to turn over production and operation of its fleet of launch vehicles to the private sector. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle has launched rideshare missions with as many as 104 small satellites aboard. The ISRO’s newest rocket, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, completed its first successful flight in February. The companies that operate these launchers will look for opportunities to promote them overseas.

Foreign manufacturers and operators of large and small satellites have launched their spacecraft on Indian rockets. OneWeb, for example, booked two Launch Vehicle Mark-III (LVM-III) launches that orbited 76 broadband satellites. This indicated a level of comfort with safeguards that would prevent the unauthorized transfer of technologies to Indian entities.

China’s challenges

The same can’t be said for China. Export laws and concerns over technology transfer have restricted efforts by the nation to sell launches to Western satellite builders. Similar concerns have limited the attractiveness of Chinese-built satellites to foreign buyers.

In recent years, China has been building more small satellites as well as a bewildering number of small launch vehicles to place them into orbit. The number of launchers and satellite companies is likely more than the country’s burgeoning space program can commercially support.

Chinese companies will certainly be looking abroad to fill launch manifests and to market their small satellites. Those opportunities will likely be limited in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Also, China is seeking to increase its influence and access raw materials in other regions of the world where the space industry is growing.

Russia’s woes

Although Russia has been launching more rideshare missions with small satellites aboard, the country hasn’t really been a leader in this area. Roscosmos, the state corporation that runs the nation’s civil space program, is under sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. So, it’s unlikely Russians will be showing up in Logan in any large numbers for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s space policy has also been the reverse of India’s approach. Faced with a bloated, inefficient industry plagued by fraud and abuse, Russia transformed the Roscosmos space agency into a state-run corporation, and placed virtually every space entity under its control. As a result, the country really doesn’t have a private space sector.

The Russians also lack money. The Ukraine war is costing an enormous amount. Although President Vladimir Putin periodically says good things about the space program, he has seemed reluctant over the past quarter-century to give Roscosmos the level of funding needed to pursue ambitious projects.

The move to smaller satellites and the rise of SpaceX has also ended Russia’s dominance of the launch market that the nation enjoyed following the end of the Cold War. The sanctions imposed over the Ukraine war caused Russia to lose a number of foreign launch contracts and ended cooperation with Europe on launches of Soyuz ST-B rockets from the Guiana Space Center in South America.

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