New Chinese small sat manufacturing capacity could have international ramifications

by

HELSINKI — Two new Chinese factories capable of producing hundreds of small satellites per year could help China achieve space objectives and impact the international market.

Production trials are now underway at a new facility belonging to the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). The plant, situated within CAST’s aerospace industrial base in Tianjin, north China, will be capable of producing more than 200 satellites per year according to the company.

This adds to capacity developed by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), a giant missile maker and defense contractor, which last year completed its own factory in Wuhan and will eventually be capable of manufacturing 240 small satellites each year. 

“We can likely consider this development as reaching a capability that is on the critical path for achieving national objectives in space,” Tomas Hrozensky, a researcher at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews.

Notably the new capacity could be relevant for national plans to establish a low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation named Guowang. Initial plans suggest China wants to build a 13,000-satellite constellation to rival Western projects including SpaceX’s Starlink.

“I also believe this can increase competition on the international markets, especially for those actors, whose industry is reliant on international markets,” Hrozensky says.

China’s role in the global space economy is heavily impacted by the U.S. ITAR regulations Hrozensky notes, but it is still an active player.

CAST belongs to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which handles the vast majority of the country’s civil and military space projects. CAST is the country’s main spacecraft maker, including space station modules, crewed spacecraft and satellite buses.

The 68.8-square-kilometer Wuhan National Aerospace Industrial Base is the center for CASIC’s space ambitions and became fully operational in February 2021. It also hosts rocket manufacturing facilities and a host of other companies related to the supply chain.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences and a number of private satellite manufacturers are also active in China, adding to overall capacity.

Hrozensky also notes that this new capability can be a valuable asset for China’s space economic diplomacy.

China has long offered integrated packages of communications and Earth observation satellites, covering manufacture, launch, ground support, training and insurance in its foreign policy, both through international satellite sales and as a part of broader diplomatic engagement, notably in Africa and Latin America. 

“I see the viability in that small satellite platforms would arguably be cheaper and offer more flexible options for these customer countries,” Hrozensky says.