A Different Kind of Growth In Spacecraft Deployments

A Different Kind of Growth In Spacecraft Deployments

Since next week more or less begins with the 4th of July holiday in the United States, there will be no analysis next week. For U.S. compatriots, have an enjoyable and delicious 4th! Breaks are nice!

I’ve written several observations about the state of the global launch industry and its extremely heavy lean on one particular launch company, SpaceX. While I have no issue with the launch company, I believe dependency on a single launch company is unhealthy–especially if it doesn’t have to be that way.

This analysis, however, is one about plenty.

Come On In, The Water’s Fine!

It’s one about organizations and nations taking advantage of opportunities, in this case, to operate spacecraft. They are flourishing despite the potential bottleneck of using one launch company, SpaceX, and, ironically, mainly because of the inexpensive launch opportunities that the company provides. SpaceX isn’t the only one providing rideshares–Russia’s Glavkosmos and the Indian Space Research Organisation also offer similar services. Companies in China do as well. But SpaceX conducts more of them, and at very good prices.

The one dataset that stands out to me for the space industry is the number of nations that have organizations operating in space in 2023, which is 45. That number indicates growth in the countries with groups committed enough to spend money to design, build, and then deploy spacecraft. And, yes, it’s only the middle of the year.

Before continuing–the source I use, Space-Track.org, is trailing in identifying space objects orbiting the Earth. And not just for 2023. That lack of updated identification means I might have missed a few more nations with spacecraft in orbit. But, as you’ll see, 45 is pretty good.

Maybe no other nations will join for the rest of the year, but 2023’s mid-year total is still more than 2022’s total of 41 countries operating spacecraft. And 2022 was more than 2021’s 36, which was more than 2020’s 29. Those increases indicate growth of interest by people of nations not usually associated with the space industry. For example, some countries operating spacecraft in 2023 might be surprising: Monaco, Slovakia, and Colombia.

One is Better Than None

Those three are among the majority of nations (22) operating only one satellite in orbit. Their satellites tend to be small–less than 3 kilograms–and primarily used as test platforms or technology demonstrators. But that makes sense.

A person or group wanting to understand something new doesn’t necessarily want to invest a lot into the unknown initially. The various available smallsat platforms and price ranges allow them to tailor their first steps into space. Even better, getting a satellite into space (at the sizes used in 2023) can be much less expensive than the satellite itself. The fact there is an opportunity for these nations to launch shouldn’t be undersold, either.

Take Monaco, for example. Not only is that principality the home to Europe’s greatest pop music contributor and cultural treasure, Princess Stephanie, but it is also slowly getting younger generations involved with space. Orbital Solutions Monaco offers a program, STEMMSAT, in which high school students build a satellite, launch it, and then operate it. The satellite, in this case, RoseyCubesat-1, is an ISIS 1U cubesat (10X10X10cm) with a mass of ~1 kg. It uses ham radio frequencies for communications and has not just one, but TWO, cameras for taking pictures of the Earth. That’s a lot of hands-on space activity for high school students in Monaco or any other nation.

For Kenya, the satellite deployed in 2023 was the second satellite that the nation had ever deployed. Kenya’s use of a satellite differs from that of Monaco’s, with a mission focusing on helping that country fight against food insecurity. The satellite, Taifa-1, is a 3U (30X10X10cm) cubesat of 5 kg that the Kenya Space Agency uses for remote sensing purposes. The resulting satellite imagery data will (hopefully) aid Kenya in its food security efforts. Kenya’s use of Taifa-1 is similar to how the U.S. and other nations monitor their food supplies. But Taifa-1 is less expensive those other nations’ satellites.

Becoming Space Nations

Clearly, neither Monaco’s nor Kenya’s satellites are technical tour-de-forces engaging in commercial missions that will cause a VC’s heart to flutter. Neither are burgeoning hotbeds of “New Space Whatever.” They aren’t deploying constellations of thousands of satellites. Pretty much all of the other 20 single-satellite nations aren’t. But their activities align with a particular space narrative: space can potentially help humans on Earth.

Not only that, most of these nations and organizations are attempting to learn about space and not lean on ready-made solutions. If they continue committing resources and people to space activities, they’ll see positive results after a time. They’ll eventually have a cadre of homegrown space experts.

We have a good idea of what a space workforce can do for a nation–at least in the U.S., China, India, Japan, Russia, and Europe. We see that space expertise is not only helpful but valuable. These nations new to space will cultivate expertise reflecting their values and goals and contribute to diverse approaches to common challenges across the community.

As to why more nations and companies are joining in the space activities. Based on the data, smallsats feature prominently for these new space stakeholders. Of the over 1,600 spacecraft deployed in 2023, nearly 92% fit in the smallsat category. Generally, smallsats are more affordable in many aspects. That they are inexpensive and still accomplish missions that required $100-million+ satellites over ten years ago might be a significant factor in deciding to explore space. There are more good reasons to use smallsats, which I’ve covered in: Smallsats: Commercial Shift Spurs Growing Ecosystem.

About a quarter of the world’s nations have deployed a spacecraft in 2023. There will probably be a few more for the remainder of the year. Of course, 3.5 years of data represent a small slice of global space activity. It may be the number of nations with assets in orbit declines in the next few years. But that seems unlikely, considering that only a quarter of the world’s nations are involved this year. Other countries testing space technology possibilities might be a more likely outcome. That technology adoption and growth are not inevitable, though.

While spacecraft and their missions are not the ultimate answer to resolving challenges on Earth, they can be another tool for nations and people to use in helping to make life better. As more countries try their hand at space, perhaps that will help create a true and vibrant global space economy.