SINGAPORE: It may come as a surprise, but Singapore has a space industry – one which hires 1,000 people and involves 30 companies.
It’s a big step from just five years ago, when there was no industry to speak of, and only 20 space researchers in institutes of higher learning.
Curiously, 2013 was also when the Economic Development Board (EDB) started its Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn), focusing on developing the sector, even amidst the apparent dearth of commercial projects.
But the agency saw a number of factors that led it to believe that space technology could be an exciting part of Singapore’s economic landscape.
One is that space technology has become much cheaper over the past decade, making it accessible to small players and even start-ups. This is thanks to advances in technology, leading to miniaturisation.
In fact, some of the smallest satellites are cubes that measure just 10cm on each side – known as nanosatellites.
While traditional satellites could cost US$100 million (S$133 million) to build, these nanosatellites can be built by undergraduates at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) at a cost of only US$50,000.
Launching a nanosatellite costs as little as US$70,000 to US$80,000, compared to US$40 million to US$50 million for traditional satellites.
This accessibility has led industry players to dub our time the "new space age".
Associate Professor Amal Chandran, assistant director of the Satellite Research Centre housed in NTU, compared the developments to that in mobile technology.
“Payloads have become very smart. We have started to miniaturise it to be able to fit within these (nanosatellites) and execute full space missions,” said Dr Chandran, who is referring to devices carried by the satellites, ranging from scientific instruments, cameras to sensors.
Another factor that EDB identified was the fact that Singaporean businesses have latent capabilities in other fields, which are transferable to space technology.
“We already had good capabilities in electronics, in info-communications and technology,” said Mr Tan Kong Hwee, executive director of transport engineering in EDB, the division that oversees OSTIn. “It was a great opportunity for us to leverage those capabilities to look into how else we could expand our industry riding on this trend.”
An example of a company that effectively transferred the capabilities it had is Addvalue Technologies.
The medium-sized enterprise has been listed on the Singapore stock exchange since 2000, having made its name in designing and manufacturing satellite communications devices which allow people to stay in touch in remote areas where it’s difficult to get cell connection – such as mountainous regions and oceans.
Addvalue identified a problem in the satellite industry. Nanosatellites usually enter low Earth orbit, which is at an altitude of 2,000km or less. In order to remain in orbit against the Earth's gravitational pull, they need to travel at a speed that takes them around the globe in 90 minutes.
This is in contrast to satellites in geostationary orbit – typically used in telecommunications and for broadcast – which orbit the earth high enough and fast enough to match the earth's rate of rotation, thus they appear to remain at a fixed position in the sky to us on the ground.
Operators of satellites in low Earth orbit can only contact them every 90 minutes, which is inefficient.
Satellites in low Earth orbit are typically used for monitoring and imaging purposes. That communication time lag could be particularly crucial when monitoring urgent and fast-changing developments, such as forest fires.
So Addvalue modified its technology, developing an Internet Data Relay System (IDRS) – a terminal that could sit on every satellite in low Earth orbit and allow it to maintain on-demand contact with its operator. This would be the first time the technology is available commercially.
In 2015, Addvalue put the IDRS terminal on a satellite launched by NTU as a proof of concept.
Apart from the immediate commercial interest, the company said a successful proof of concept also demonstrates that Addvalue has the capability to compete in the new space age.
"The IDRS terminal that we offer right now (gives) us a track record - that we are able to produce a space product at low cost, short schedule, and fast turnaround at high volume, which will serve the needs of the new space industry,” said Dr Colin Chan, Chairman and CEO of Addvalue Technologies.
He added that this is a device with high redundancy, as most nanosatellites have a short lifespan, and will typically be launched as part of a constellation of satellites.
For example, Dr Chan explained that a first launch of 20 satellites may last for about three years, after which they will need to be replaced.
“Basically we have a captive customer and offer a service that will give us recurring revenue. This model will apply to every other customer in there,” he said.
GETTING OFF THE GROUND
Thus far, Singapore’s seven satellites have all been launched overseas. This includes Velox-II, the satellite that Addvalue put its IDRS terminal on, which was launched from India.
But if some start-ups have their way, we could start launching them nearer to home someday.
Equatorial Space Industries aims to build small, simple rockets in order to make it even cheaper and easier to bring nanosatellites to space.
The start-up, which has been around for six months, is housed in National University of Singapore’s incubator space, The Hangar. The team, who are all in their 20s, was recently awarded the NUS Innovation and Entrepreneurship Practicum Grant.
The problem, they say, is that very few countries have launch capabilities, and most of the satellites still ride on big rockets that take off infrequently.
This means those who do not have launch capability have to queue for a spot on these rockets, leading to inflexible launch schedules.
It is also highly inefficient, as the big rockets were designed for big and heavy satellites, which most satellites were up until 10 years ago. The Alphasat, for example, is the size of a double-decker bus and has a mass of more than 6.6 tonnes.
Polish-born Simon Gwozdz, CEO of Equatorial Space Industries, first dreamed that Singapore could be a launch site when he was serving National Service on Pulau Tekong, and noticed the dredging platforms in the sea.
“I was thinking: What if one of them was re-purposed for a launch site? Not on Tekong, but brought to sea,” he said.
To Mr Gwozdz, Singapore is the perfect place to develop a company that launches nanosatellites in the new space age.
One clear reason is that Singapore is very close to the equator, allowing efficient launches into equatorial orbits. A constellation of satellites in an equatorial orbit is particularly attractive to low-latitude countries as it can offer constant coverage with about 30 satellites, as compared to hundreds of satellites if they were launched into north-to-south polar orbits. This effectively unlocks the potential for the space industry in Asia.
So a network of satellites in equatorial orbit would be a significant reduction in cost for operators seeking to set up global networks with 24/7 coverage. One potential use of such a network is to enable a nation-wide network of sensors for autonomous vehicles.
Currently, there are few launch sites near the equator – and even fewer of them are close to industrial hubs like Singapore that can provide the necessary operations, maintenance and transport support.
“Singapore is probably the only place in the world that's so close to the equator, that's so developed, and that actually has a perfect prospective launch site so nearby,” said Mr Gwozdz.
His dream launch site, situated a short boat ride from Singapore in the South China Sea, will be able to launch satellites into both equatorial and polar orbits, he said.
“The maritime, aviation, and petrochemical industries – they truly supply all the hardware and skillsets that you need ... the sea launch would be very easily supported by (our) very strong maritime base," he said.
“Singapore could not only participate in the launch industry, it could actually dominate in the years to come."