SINGAPORE: When we talk about space, the question inevitably pops up: “So when are we sending a Singaporean to space?”
Space travel, the sexy part of the space business, also gets an unfair share of media attention.
However, much of the space industry is focused on commercial activities that are already integrated into and even indispensable in our everyday lives on Earth.
The local space industry knows there is an opportunity to capture Singapore’s fair share of value from this sizable market. The Space Foundation reports that 75 per cent of global space activities, valued at S$450 billion in 2015, is in commercial space products and services, such as telecommunications, broadcasting, earth observation, commercial infrastructure and support industries.
ASIA MAKING ITS MARK
Although western economies have traditionally played a dominant role in the space economy, space activity in Asia is heating up.
India has had an amazing record in space. Just three years ago, its space agency was the first Asian country to successfully send a probe to Mars and orbit the Red Planet.
To date, it has been the only organisation to be successful in a first attempt to do so, not to mention at an enviable price tag of merely S$100 million.
In contrast, NASA’s similar MAVEN Mars orbiter costs S$900 million.
This affirms technology as a universal leveller. It shows that the role of planetary exploration and space is no longer limited to developed nations with deep pockets.
China has made known its ambition to become a space superpower by 2030. In a notable recent example of how space is truly influencing modern lives, China has used a quantum satellite to transmit potentially “unhackable data” using advanced quantum cryptography.
This could signify a potential game changer for cybersecurity, in helping overcome issues of signal corruption over traditional optical fibre. If experiments yield positive results, satellite systems and ground networks could eventually work in sync to create a “truly secure global network” that allows the safe and seamless transmission of information.
Japan has been a member of the space club for decades.
Its Kibo module is the largest single module on the International Space Station, jointly built by Europe, United States, Canada, Russia and Japan. The module was set up for science experiments and since 2016, Singaporean students have been able to use this lab-in-space.
SMALLER SATELLITES BUT BIGGER OPPORTUNITIES
A game changer in the industry has been the growing use of smaller satellites. Advances in electronics miniaturisation and computing power, together with developments in commercial off-the-shelf technology and novel use cases in remote sensing and communications is revolutionising the space game.
Last month, Research and Markets announced that the market for nano-satellites (weighing less than 10kg) and micro-satellites (weighing less than 100kg) is projected to grow from S$1.6 billion to S$4.7 billion in five years.
This is driven by larger investments as markets realise the potential in these cheaper, plug-and-play alternatives for navigation, maritime, earth observation and space systems.
Riding on the wave of this growth, small nations such as Luxembourg, Netherlands and Denmark are increasing their stake in space. Denmark with a population close to 6 million, employs 1,500 people in this industry with a turnover of close to S$1 billion and is heavily export-focused.
CARVING A NICHE IN A NICHE FIELD
Only around 600 men and women have been to space. The niche space industry employs only around 1 million people globally - of which an estimated 70 per cent works in the United States, Russia and China.
The integration of space technology into our daily lives also means new modern disciplines are now required. With the avalanche of data from and flowing through space systems, programmers, computer scientists and big data experts are all likely to find increasing demand for jobs seeking to monetise these assets.
Singapore can play a role in this labour-light, innovation-intensive and cutting-edge field.
Smaller but tech-savvy European nations have taken advantage of their links to the European Space Agency to jump start the nascent space industries. Singapore could do likewise.
Our long-established and friendly ties with global companies in the space business and emerging Asian space economies will provide multiple platforms to collaborate.
These could be in technical or product development to solve the growing space market needs, or tapping onto space technologies to innovate and create new applications for business sectors outside of space, such as in finance, and growing data-driven industries.
The budding space sector has been quietly making progress and seeing green shoots.
For example, Singapore has been able to establish research ties with leading Japanese institutions. Nanyang Technology University has collaborated with Kyushu Institute of Technology to develop Aoba Velox-III, a mere 2kg satellite that houses a state-of-the-art pulsed plasma thruster that could double the flight time of nano-satellites. If viable, it would address an immediate market need.
The Singapore Space and Technology Association has also inked an Memorandum of Understanding with the Global Navigation Satellite Systems – Location Based Services Association of China in 2015 during the Global Space and Technology Convention held annually in Singapore.
This MOU seeks to promote partnerships and market access on space-enabled services such as digital wallets and toll payments.
In December 2015, ST Electronics successfully launched TeLEOS-1, Singapore’s first commercial Earth Observation Satellite, into a 550km near equatorial Orbit. TeLEOS-1 is the first made-in-Singapore commercial satellite, designed and developed by a dedicated team of engineers at the state-of-the-art space grade manufacturing facility at the ST Electronics Satellite Systems Centre.
Singapore already provides a solid foundation in this field with its fanatical focus on mathematics and innovation.
For Singaporeans who are motivated to expand their knowledge into the space industry, being part of this niche industry will mean hard knocks and hard work. Nothing about working in the space sector is easy but overall success may be well within our grasp, contrary to common belief.
In fact, some 30 or more companies in this industry are already tapping into Singapore’s strengths and have established a base here. These companies include satellite communications companies such as SES and Thuraya, niche operators such as Kacific and 21AT and solutions provider including Addvalue and GomSpace.
Space has always been about working with constraints, being pragmatic and yet innovative; it is a mindset that Singapore relates well to.
In the near future, maybe we will stop asking when we will be sending a Singaporean to space.
Because it will mean so much more than that for us.
Lynette Tan is executive director of Singapore Space and Technology Association.