Xing He, executive vice president, China Great Wall Industry Corp. Credit: Euroconsult

PARIS — The proliferation of satellite technology and the advent of small satellites performing a wide range of missions offer a commercial opening to China that the country’s booming space sector hopes to seize.

The U.S. ITAR — International Traffic in Arms Regulations — designed to slow China’s rocket development by banning exports of U.S. satellite parts to China have failed completely in its original primary task, thanks to strong Chinese domestic demand for satellite launches. 

But ITAR did stunt China’s growth as an exporter of launch services. Until SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket became a force in the market, ITAR mainly benefited Europe’s Arianespace and the U.S.-Russian International Launch Services (ILS), which were spared much competition from China.

In recent years as China’s satellite industry has developed large, high-power telecommunications satellites, these have been bundled with rockets on Chinee launchers to give China an export presence. But these contracts have been relatively rare.

With the commoditization of much satellite technology, many nations now make satellites and satellite components that use no U.S. technology. Beyond the reach of ITAR, they can be exported to China and use for telecommunications payloads on Chinese satellite platforms.

The smallsat boom promises to accelerate that trend as operators of smallsat constellations, some with global, or at least multi-national, supply chains, include China in their assessment of where best to purchase launches.

Spurred by the domestic demand, China’s market is seeing the same enthusiasm for NewSpace-type developments as the United States, Europe and Asia in privately funded rockets and satellite systems. New launch-service companies include Landspace, OneSpace, I-Space and Ink Space.

Chinese officials say private-sector space activity, in both launch services and satellite applications, has taken off since a 2014 change in Chinese regulations:

China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC) has lived through the ITAR ban for 20 years and now sees in smallsats a way of taking ITAR out of the equation. GCWIC Executive Vice President Xing He says that private-sector launch companies in China expect to benefit from this as much as does CGWIC.

Credit: Euroconsult

“This is an opportunity for us to add business,” He said at Euroconsult’s World Space Business Week, held here Sept. 9-13, referring to the growth in demand for cubesats.

“In the past, because of ITAR, we were not able to launch the big satellites manufactured in the U.S., or those with U.S. components. So we are focusing on smallsats, which are beyond the control of ITAR.”

Until only a few years ago, a European company would be almost embarrassed in labeling its product “ITAR-free,” meaning not subject to ITAR export constraints. That is no longer true, and even U.S. companies have adopted the ITAR-free label for hardware designed and developed by their non-U.S. subsidiaries.

China’s domestic space market continues to grow at a pace that makes export orders less important than they are in Europe, for example. The smallsat sector there is moving into constellations, putting them on the CGWIC radar alongside ITAR-free opportunities outside China.

“This year we have found more and more opportunities in China and around the world,” He said. “We have smallsat customers. China will definitely build up its constellations and there are opportunities for small launchers there.”

At least three private-sector launch companies have developed their own small launch vehicles. CGWIC in early 2019 contracted with Earth observation constellation startup Satellogic to launch 13 Satellogic spacecraft on a Long March 6 rocket. The multi-launch agreement covers a total of 90 satellites to launch into low Earth orbit.