By Shane Fitzmaurice, MJIL Staff Member

Currently, small satellite developers in the United States are pressuring the government to let them launch their satellites on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).[1] These companies would be more than happy to launch their satellites on vehicles made in the United States, except there isn’t enough supply.[2] United States space launch vehicles prefer larger payloads.[3] If a company wants to launch a small satellite in the United States, it must “piggyback” as a secondary payload.[4] This is undesirable to these small satellite developers, whom would rather have their satellites be the primary payload so they can choose their own launch dates.[5]

The PSLV, on the other hand, caters towards small satellites.[6] On February 15, 2017, the PSLV successfully launched a payload of 104 foreign satellites into orbit.[7] This shattered the previously held record by the Russians for most number of satellites sent into space in a single launch.[8]

Unfortunately for these United States small satellite developers, however, the United States government prohibits them from launching on the PSLV.[9] The United States worries that doing so would destroy their domestic launch service market because India’s rocket is subsidized.[10] As a way to appease both small satellite developers and launch service providers, the United States will let India launch satellites manufactured in the United States if India signs an agreement that mandates that India’s launch service prices do not fall below United States prices.[11] India, however, has refused to sign this agreement.[12]

An international trading framework such as the GATS can relieve this dispute. India stands to benefit because the United States mandate that India’s prices do not fall below a certain minimum is a quota.[13] Quotas are prohibited in the GATS (so long as the United States does not sign a limitation into its schedule of commitments, an act that would defeat the whole purpose of negotiating).[14] The United States stands to benefit for a similar reason: India’s subsidization of its PSLV is counter to the letter and spirit of the GATS.[15] Further, the GATS contains a dispute settlement mechanism (thanks to the WTO) that will quell any worries that one party will take unfair advantage of the agreement.[16]

Thus, including launch services in the GATS will facilitate the use of the PSLV by satellites manufactured in the United States. This will relieve the current drought in the United States small satellite launch market.

[1] Peter B. de Selding, Customers of India’s PSLV Rocket Say India Unlikely to Accept U.S. Terms, SpaceNews.com (July 19, 2016), http://spacenews.com/customers-of-indias-pslv-rocket-say-india-unlikely-to-accept-u-s-terms/.

[2] See Peter B. de Selding, U.S. Launch Companies Lobby to Maintain Ban on Use of Indian Rocket, SpaceNews.com (March 29, 2016), http://spacenews.com/u-s-space-transport-companies-lobby-to-maintain-ban-on-use-of-indian-rockets/.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] Santanu Choudhury, India Breaks Record for Launching Most Satellites from a Single Rocket, WSJ.com (Feb. 15, 2017, 11:46 am IST), http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2017/02/15/india-breaks-record-for-launching-most-satellites-from-single-rocket/.

[8] Id.

[9] de Selding, supra note 2.

[10] Id.

[11] See id.

[12] de Selding, supra note 1; Michael J. Listner, India’s Commercial Space Conundrum, Space Thoughts (July 6, 2016), https://spacethoughtsblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/06/indias-commercial-space-conundrum/.

[13] See General Agreement on Trade in Services, WTO.org, art. XVI, https://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/26-gats_01_e.htm (last visited Mar. 6, 2017).

[14] Id.

[15] See id., art. XV.

[16] See Frans von der Dunk & Fabio Tronchetti, Handbook of Space Law 818–824 (2015).