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What is a “Space Company” – A Quick Overview

OECD Definition

The following explanation regarding what is a space company is extracted from OECD Handbook on Measuring the Space Economy, 2022:

Defining a “space company” has been a challenge for a long time. Very often business enterprises involved in the manufacturing of space products and/or in the provision of space-related services (also known as space activities and which are described further on) are also involved in other areas of the economy. They may derive only a part of their revenues from space activities. In other words, most business enterprises that produce upstream products and services for the space economy also produce goods and services beyond the space economy.

In its 2013 study of almost 4,000 organisations in the US , the US Department of Commerce found that some 71% of respondents were serving more than one market segment including aircraft, electronics, energy, missiles, ground vehicles, ships etc. The rapid digitalisation of the downstream sector poses even greater challenges for the delineation between the space and non-space economies.

Much attention has been given to “new space” actors in recent years. New space actors include, generally speaking, upstream and downstream start-ups and new entrants from other areas (information and communications technologies firms including those engaged in data analytics in particular). The bulk of these new entrants may be identified through information on the recipients of grants and services, participants in government-organised challenges, winners of prizes and different types of start-up support (incubators, accelerators, etc.), and following the investments of venture capital. As an illustration, SpaceX was the fourth largest contractor in 2020 (by procurement awards), after , Lockheed Martin and Jacobs , a technical professional services firm.

Space Activities Definitions

OECD currently identifies the most common space activities as the following:

  • Satellite communications: The development and/or use of and related subsystems to send signals to Earth for the purpose of fixed or mobile telecommunications services (voice, data, Internet, and multimedia) and broadcasting (TV and radio services, video services, Internet content).
  • Positioning, navigation and timing: The development and/or use of satellites and related subsystems for localisation, positioning and timing services. Navigation is used for air, maritime and land transport, or the localisation of individuals and vehicles. It also provides a universal referential time and location standard for a number of systems.
  • Earth observation: The development and/or use of satellites and related subsystems to measure and monitor Earth, including its climate, environment and people.
  • Space transportation: The development and/or use of launch vehicles and related subsystems. This includes , government and commercial , space adventure rides, as well as “last mile” and logistics services for transportation between orbits, etc.
  • Space exploration: The development and/or use of crewed and uncrewed (including space stations, rovers and probes) to explore the universe beyond Earth's atmosphere (e.g. the , other planets, ). Included in this sector are the and astronaut-related activities.
  • : The category includes a range of scientific activities including space science, i.e. the various scientific fields that relate to space flight or any phenomena occurring in space or on other planets (e.g. , , space-related life science, space debris tracking); and space-related earth science, i.e. the various science fields that use space-based observations to study the physical and chemical constitution of the Earth and its atmosphere (e.g. atmospheric science, climate research).
  • Space technologies: The category may include specific space system technologies that are used in various space missions, such as space nuclear systems (power, propulsion), solar electric propulsion, etc.
  • Generic technologies or components that may enable space capabilities: Some of these are not initially destined for use on a specific space system or for a specific space application but may then lead to new products and services (e.g. and data analytics software). This could be the case for early-phase research, small off-the-shelf components used in various systems, or services based on integrated applications.

The different uses or applications of space activities evolve constantly as space technologies become increasingly embedded in systems and services used in routine activities.

The detailed definition of what is considered a space company varies by organization.

Space Industry Example

The following is an example from the UK Government report The Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2021:

In the UK, organisations meeting the following definitions and criteria are considered part of the ‘':

  • Non-commercial organisations (e.g., universities, research institutes) that secure income to contribute space-specific research and expertise throughout the industry supply chain, often in partnership with commercial organisations. Noncommercial income includes government agency and institutional grant funding, core funding, research funding, tuition fees, departmental expenditures, and operating budgets.
  • Commercial organisations (i.e., businesses, companies, firms) that earn revenue from the manufacture, launch and operation of satellites/spacecraft, and from meaningful utilisation of the signals and data supplied by satellites spacecraft to develop value added applications. Such organisations may also secure non-commercial income (e.g., grants) to undertake specific research and development.

‘Space-related activity' is defined to include any of the following:

  • Space Manufacturing: Design and/ or manufacture of space equipment and subsystems. Includes: launch vehicles and subsystems, satellites/payloads/spacecraft and subsystems, scientific instruments (e.g., instrumentation for use in space-related experiments, astronomical instruments), ground segment systems and equipment (control centres and telemetry), suppliers of materials and components, scientific and engineering support, fundamental and applied research, space test facilities (e.g., provision of environmental testing services).
  • Space Operations: Launch and/or operation of satellites and/or spacecraft. Includes: launch services, launch brokerage services, proprietary satellite operation (including sale/lease of capacity, e.g., the lease of transponders on a satellite for the provision of broadcasting services), third-party ground segment operation, ground station networks, in-orbit servicing, debris removal, space surveillance & tracking (SST), space tourism (including services associated with the provision of space tourism, for example training, , and ), inspace manufacturing.
  • Space Applications: Applications of satellite signals and data. Includes: direct-to-home (DTH) broadcasting, fixed and mobile satellite communications services (including very small aperture terminals (VSATs)), location-based signal and connectivity service providers, supply of user devices and equipment (e.g., satellite phones), processors of satellite data, applications leveraging satellite signals (e.g., devices and location based services) and/or data (e.g., meteorology, geographic information system (GIS) software and geospatial products), other (e.g. quantum key distribution).
  • Ancillary Services: Specialised support services. Includes: launch and satellite insurance (including brokerage) services, financial and legal services, software and IT services, market research and consultancy services, business incubation and development, policymaking, regulation, and oversight.


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