Is Southeast Asia the New Bastion for Space Technology?
As space tech becomes more democratised, new players are getting in on the action
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
From commercial space travel to low-cost rockets using 3D printed hybrid fuel, it is no secret that the global space industry is taking off.
Morgan Stanley predicts the space industry—currently valued at $350 billion—will grow into an economy worth more than $1.1 trillion by 2040. Major players, as in Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, are driving much of the recent innovation.
But as space tech becomes more and more democratised, former NASA scientist Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya says even smaller players around the world can get in on the action. Dr. Bhattacharya is the co-founder and CEO of space tech incubator Astropreneurs HUB, which seeks to level the playing field for small private companies in an industry dominated by large national space agencies.
“Space has been an inspiration for humanity since the beginning of time. When we think about reaching out to space we are no longer identified as a particular nation, race or religion,” says Dr. Bhattacharya.
The space tech industry in Southeast Asia is a nascent one, but with lower barriers to entry, players in the region are slowly but surely catching up in the space race.
Space tech in Southeast Asia
Gilmour Space Technologies, for instance, is looking at the blossoming industry of small, relatively low-cost rockets. Founded by former banker Adam Gilmour, the company aims to put small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), wherein the company will charge an average of $25,000 per kilogram, half the current market price. Small satellites can be used for purposes of imaging, mapping, navigation, Internet transmission, and debris management.
In 2016, the company, with presence in Singapore and Australia, launched a rocket to an altitude of 5 kilometers using its 3D printed hybrid fuel—proof in Gilmour’s mind that a lean, low-cost operation could work.
In an Inc. Southeast Asia feature on Gilmour Space Technologies, what is driving this new generation of rocketeers is the falling cost of rocket development due to better rocket design, the use of new technologies like 3D printing of rocket parts, and the wealth of information from NASA.
While it cost billions for NASA to develop its Space Shuttle rockets in the 1980s, Musk’s SpaceX shelled out just $90 million to develop its Falcon 1 rocket in the 2000s. As for CEO Gilmour, he is on track to spend $30 million to develop the Eris rocket, whose orbital flight is scheduled to be in the last quarter of 2020.
Transcelestial Technologies is another space tech company in Singapore that is working to build a laser communications network that will enable the transmission of data over long distances by tapping into a network of nanosatellite-mounted lasers.
Co-founder and CEO Rohit Jha says in an interview with SGInnovate, “This would create a market worth billions of dollars that would never exist with any other technology.”
Mohammad Danesh, co-founder and chief technology officer, explains in an interview with The Straits Times that data will be transferred “using razor-thin laser beams from satellites in space, pointed accurately at telescope-like ground stations.” The company is currently building the hardware and writing the software for the two components of the prototype: the transmitter to be plugged onto cube satellites and the ground station to receive the transmissions.
As for Astroscale, with headquarters in Singapore and the R&D office in Japan, the focus is on long-term spaceflight safety through the removal of space debris—considered a threat to the vital satellites orbiting the earth. According to Astroscale, there are more than 20,000 large-sized space debris and over 750,000 smaller debris which cannot be tracked.
Outside Singapore, Independence-X Aerospace is a Kuala Lumpur-based company with a dream of transforming Malaysia into a space hub, while contributing to the socio-economic development in the region. CEO Izmir Yamin tells SpaceTech Asia that they are currently working on a launch vehicle called the DNLV (Dedicated Nano Launch Vehicle).
Thailand’s mu Space delivers satellite-based broadband for telcos and private businesses, supporting the Thai government’s initiatives in bringing connectivity to rural areas. mu Space CEO James Yenbamroong says they are currently building a low latency, high throughput satellite that is expected to provide satellite communication services across Asia-Pacific. It will have an expected lifespan of at least 15 years.
In an interview with Inc. Southeast Asia, James says they also want to extend their business to other activities, such as space tourism, within the next decade.
Nurturing space tech startups
To be sure, Southeast Asia is has a long way to go in terms of nurturing space tech startups to reach their full potential.
Transcelestial’s Jha admits that Southeast Asian space tech is still in its infancy, but says that the region is leapfrogging the decades it took for Western counterparts to reach the same level of maturity.
In this Inc. Southeast Asia article, Jha credits the accelerated pace of growth to stakeholders across the ecosystem, such as government agencies, non-profit bodies, deep tech accelerators and incubators, and other space tech startups.
It won’t be long before Southeast Asian rockets find their rightful place in outer space—surely it won’t be light years away.
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