Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Credit: CNSA

LONDON—The U.S. government policy prohibiting even the most banal U.S.-built widget from being launched aboard Chinese rockets may be yesterday’s news in Washington, but it is still a live issue in Europe.

With European governments now moving toward greater interaction with China’s space program, some European companies are developing hardware specifically labeled “ITAR-free.”

For them, it’s just as commercially savvy as food manufacturers putting “non-GMO” on their products. ITAR-free sells.

“It’s often the first or second question I get asked: Are we dependent on any U.S. materials? Do we have ITAR-free status?” said Mike Lawton, chief executive of Oxford Space Systems, a small start-up developing technologies including deployable satellite antennas and retractable booms.

Based at Britain’s Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire, England, Oxford Space System is a component manufacturer, not a satellite prime contractor. Where its products are launched following integration into their satellites is not Oxford’s concern.

But enough of its customers are worried about ITAR’s potential effects that they would prefer to avoid the problem altogether.

ITAR, or the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, was somewhat loosened in late 2014, especially regarding U.S. satellite component exports to 36 nations, including Europe.

For another 150-odd nations, satellite export controls remain strict but are not prohibitive under a licensing regime now managed by the U.S. Commerce Department. Launcher technology continues to be regulated more tightly, however.

For China and other embargoed nations, ITAR is the same as it ever was. As European satellite prime contractor Thales Alenia Space found out a few years ago, the definition of an ITAR-controlled component has been extended over the years to include anything that goes into space, no matter how inconsequential.

Here is how Kevin J. Wolf, assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce’s Export Administration Bureau of Industry and Security, put it during a March 9 panel discussion in Washington. Wolf was explaining the conditions the U.S. Congress set in agreeing to loosen some ITAR constraints:

“One of the legal conditions was that, whatever you do in reducing the licensing requirement, the embargo on China and a handful of other countries – a total of 18 or 19 countries – remains the same,” Wolf said.

“That is, no U.S.-origin content, regardless of significance, regardless of whether it’s incorporated into a foreign-made item, can go to China or one of the other countries of concern,” Wolf said.

The ITAR regime has given the 22-nation European Space Agency and European companies an additional incentive to shore up their technology base for what they consider key satellite technologies, with the goal of autonomy in what is considered a strategic industrial sector.

Encouraged by Britain’s recent efforts to encourage non-British space technology companies to set up shop in Britain, several U.S. companies have done so.

For the major contractors doing business directly or indirectly with the U.S. government, dealing with China is not something to be showcased.

At least two large European companies that furnished equipment for Belarus’s first telecommunications satellite – launched in January on a Chinese rocket — declined to comment publicly on their transactions even though no ITAR-controlled items were suspected of being part of the package.

ESA and the Japanese space agency, Jaxa, both provided payload hardware for the April 6 launch of a Chinese Long March 2D rocket from the Juiquan Space Center. One experiment, developed with ESA by Qiniteq of Britain, will measure the distribution of hydrocarbon molecules across temperature ranges in near-zero-gravity conditions. The goal is to improve oil recovery from reservoirs deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

One of the satellite technologies that Europe wants to develop on its own is large deployable antennas, which unfurl umbrella-style in orbit and have been used for multiple mobile communications satellites.

Addressing a panel discussion here April 4 at a meeting of Britain’s Satellite Finance Network, organized by the law firm Bird & Bird, Oxford’s Lawton said his company is working on antenna and boom technology applicable to small cubesats and large geostationary satellites.

Oxford has contributed hardware to the Alsat-N1 cubesat, built for Algeria by the University of Surrey as part of a British-Algerian government collaboration and scheduled for launch in July on India’s PSLV rocket.

Being ITAR-free also helps with the Indian rocket, which under current U.S. policy may not be used to launch U.S. commercial or military satellite components. The policy has proved flexible of late, with several U.S.-based commercial small-satellite operators obtaining waivers permitting export to India.

Lawton said it’s not just European companies that are seeking certified ITAR-free goods.

“We’ve had very well-known U.S. companies that have actually approached us and said: ‘We really want the technology you are developing: Convince us you are not using any U.S. products,’’ Lawton said.

“So U.S. companies want to buy ITAR-free technology from us. It’s a major differentiator for us. We’re not in the business of putting satellites together, that’s for our end customers. But I have not yet had a commercial discussion where I haven’t had someone ask us to provide evidence that everything we’re working on is ITAR-free. So Somewhere in that discussion chain, it’s clear that it’s important.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.