Colorado Springs, Colo. — While much of the U.S. space industry reels from federal budget cuts and frets about the future of manned missions, overseas markets are expanding as more nations embrace space for communications, environmental monitoring, resource management and disaster response, according to members of an April 17 panel discussing space applications in emerging nations.

In 2001, just 26 countries had invested at least $10 million in space programs, said panel moderator Steve Bochinger, managing director of Euroconsult North America. By 2006 it was 42, and by 2011 the number had grown to 53 nations with active space programs. Additionally, Bochinger predicted these emerging nations would have 300 satellites aloft by 2020 — 20 percent of those from nations that do not currently have programs.

Emerging programs in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa offer opportunities to the industry but come with some challenges, not the least of which is cooperation and cultural understanding between governments. Panel members discussing the trend were Tim Deaver, vice president of market development, government solutions, at SES World Skies, David Hartshorn, secretary general of the London-based Global VSAT Forum, and Sir Martin Sweeting, founder and chairman of U.K.-based Surrey Satellite Technology.

“Space is essential to play a part fully” on the international stage, Sweeting said. While some might argue it is an extravagance in nations often burdened with dire poverty, new wisdom has taken hold that space can bolster economies and level playing fields.

The key for emerging nations is small satellites, which offer affordability but still provide the types of capabilities needed for the issues specific to those nations, be it mapping, weather, land use or even tracking of locust plagues. The application is especially crucial, Deaver said, in cases of natural disaster, which often strike developing nations. As smaller nations join the Space Age, humanitarian relief can be deployed much more quickly to areas hardest hit.

He added that there continue to be 3 billion people in the world without Internet access. “How do you solve that?” Deaver asked of places where the terrain is inhospitable or an area lacks infrastructure.

Another thorny issue is a lack of skill in some programs to assimilate the data that come in and turn them into actionable knowledge, Sweeting said. This is especially crucial in times of disaster.

Still, the panel was optimistic about the future as smaller nations join their larger counterparts in space. “Our industry has been doing very well,” Hartshorn said, but he added in closing: “We shouldn’t get cocky.”