Satellite Manufacturing: Russian Space Industry Goals

Satellite Manufacturing: Russian Space Industry Goals

When Dmitry Rogozin was in charge of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, one could expect him to say many things. He would provide tongue-in-cheek advice for how the U.S. could fix its launch industry. He pouted that people didn’t take Russia’s space efforts seriously. He literally threatened his subordinates, in one case suggesting the possibility of stuffing a Russian engineer into a space capsule and then shooting at it while the engineer was inside. If the engineer survived, capsule integrity would be considered good.

He played the space industry clown when the Russian space industry needed something more.

Setting Goals

Rogozin's successor, Yuri Borisov, has not been as bombastic, keeping his head down while attempting to lead Roscosmos. He’s been so low-key I had to double-check who he was when I saw his name in a TASS article last week.

In that interview, Borisov talks about Russia’s satellite manufacturing capacity, currently at 40 satellites per year. He compares Russia’s manufacturing to his estimated capacity of China’s manufacturers (1,200-1,500 annually) and the U.S. manufacturers (3,000 annually). He doesn’t distinguish between the satellite sizes, such as smallsats versus larger satellites. But maybe he should, as the majority of satellites the nations he identified are using are smallsats (satellites with a mass of 600 kg or less).

Thus far, in 2023, nearly 88% of China’s satellites are smallsats, compared with 65% of U.S. satellites. Of the fifty-three Russian satellite deployments, ~76% were smallsats. In raw numbers, nearly 150 satellites from China were smallsats versus a little over 1,200 U.S. smallsats. Russia’s share of smallsats was much less–40 (still, a surprisingly high number given that it’s Russia).

The numbers from Russia's competitors indicate that a few of their satellite manufacturers are focusing on smallsat production. Based on the numbers, China and U.S. manufacturers are outcompeting their Russian counterparts, which supports Borisov’s contention. He contended that Russia’s satellite manufacturers are not competitive and warned that manufacturers from nations other than China and the U.S. will likely outcompete them.

“…But if we don't do this, we may seriously lag behind in the development of the entire space industry. Not only China and the United States, but also by Britain and India and maybe other countries will overtake us by the 2030s. We must not let this happen..."

Not Enough

It’s an astonishing admission, considering who Borisov works for. Why even bring up the Russian space industry’s challenges in satellite mass production? If his observation were directed at Russians, then the numbers he’s reciting would make sense. They would instill in some readers a fear of being left behind in an industry Russia is supposed to excel in. 

But the article is in English, which indicates it’s targeting readers in English-speaking nations. The article’s topic–that Roscosmos is streamlining its satellite assembly lines while implementing standards for parts and procedures–sounds like it should be a yawner. It’s a notice of intent on the part of Borisov, and the reason for implementing those changes is a fear of falling behind. 

More interesting, however, are the goals Borisov is setting out–the desired results of the changes mentioned above. They are a helpful elaboration, but they also seem unambitious for a nation that prides itself on being at the space industry’s forefront. Based on Borisov’s stated goals, Russia’s satellite manufacturing capacity will remain behind China’s and the U.S. manufacturers:

…(ISS-Reshetnev, part of Roscosmos) is expected to have facilities for the serial assembly of about 125 satellites a year up and running by 2025. The Lavochkin Association is working on a similar facility.

However, "this is not enough," Borisov said, adding that the space industry was facing a task of making 200-250 satellites a year by the 2025-2026, and stepping up the output further to 400 per year by 2030.

Note that 400 satellites per year are at least ⅓ of China’s current estimated annual manufacturing capacity and certainly well behind his U.S. satellite manufacturing estimate of 3,000. However, even 400 satellites a year might be challenging for Russian satellite manufacturers if there’s no reason to manufacture them. 

Why Build Them? Who Will Buy Them?

One reason for recent U.S. dominance in satellite manufacturing and deployments is SpaceX’s internet relay business using its Starlink satellites. There are other U.S. satellite manufacturers, such as OneWeb, that might come close to matching SpaceX’s Starlink output. But both have reasons to build so many satellites–to provide a global communications network from space.

China’s manufacturers also have reasons for building so many satellites. One big one (at least according to Chinese media) is to somehow one-up Starlink with a homegrown LEO internet relay constellation in space. But the most significant driver so far appears to be remote sensing, both for commercial and government customers. At least 81% (119) of the 171 satellites deployed by China’s space operators so far in 2023 are for remote sensing. 

While being able to build a lot of something is nice, not using that capacity (a la ULA’s rocket factory in Alabama) is just wasting money. 

Even if Russia does figure out how 400 satellites per year will be used, its manufacturers face a problem that China is facing: who, other than customers within the nation, will use their satellites? Are there enough customers internal to Russia to justify building that many satellites?  China has a large population to draw customers from and is working on partnerships/vassals with its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia does not, and its international standing is in tatters.

Many potential customers outside of China might hesitate to work with its satellite manufacturers and order satellites. The nation’s government and some of its people are notorious for not respecting intellectual property laws. Again, though, its sizeable internal customer base seems to keep China’s satellite manufacturers busy.

Russia’s manufacturers, on the other hand, are at the mercy of their government’s decision to become a political pariah. Some Russian businesses are also associated with corruption. Neither situation is desirable for companies seeking satellite manufacturers. And there’s something else that will be a challenge for them–government centralization.

Borisov is attempting to keep the satellite manufacturers under Roscosmos’ control. That attempt is listed right at the beginning of the article: “...Roscosmos is faced with the task of launching the serial production of space satellites…” That kind of control contrasts with the various companies providing the U.S. with its satellite manufacturing capability. NASA didn’t plan for Starlink or Planet. Even China’s companies have a degree of freedom in their business decisions. 

The kind of control Roscosmos is attempting in order to make its satellite manufacturers competitive will be interesting. But it will likely stifle any innovation in processes or technologies for Russia’s space industry. Adding the requirement for government permission to implement any changes, especially those that could potentially threaten standards and processes, tends to slow things down.

It is amazing that the Russian space industry still seems able to manufacture satellites, considering the resources that the nation is throwing away in conflict. That may be why Borisov’s goals are so humble. Another reason for the smaller goals might be that the Russian attempts at central control can only deal with so much.

If that’s the case, Russian satellite manufacturing might be doomed to third-rate status before Borisov’s plans come to fruition. Still, his and Roscosmos’ goals are an attempt at getting a piece of the satellite manufacturing market. But will enough customers come to Russian satellite manufacturers to support their humble numbers?