The Big Power of the Smallsat Revolution
Launch rates in Asia are set to eclipse U.S. figures by 2025, showing that the region is on the path to reap significant returns. The benefits of Asia’s proliferation of smallsats include disaster management, agriculture, fast and affordable data, job creation and an expected new wave of business opportunities.
Asia is in no shortage of superlatives. It’s the most populous region in the world and it’s the largest continent on the planet. The oldest civilizations, highest peaks, most crowded cities and tallest buildings are all found in Asia. And now, the region has a new record to add to its list: the most satellites launched in a single mission. At first, one might have guessed that techno-forward Japan or China set the record, but this feat was achieved by India. On February 14 this year, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre carrying a payload of 104 satellites, 101 of which were cubesats. What does this mean beyond breaking world records and proving that India is a key player for launch access? That there is a smallsat revolution and Asia is very much part of it.
North America, especially the United States, is currently the clear market leader for smallsat activity, according to Northern Sky Research (NSR), but within eight years the field will change. Universities and government players across Asia have been active in developing and deploying smallsats, and commercial activity is now growing. The majority of smallsats launched during the last five years have been for technology development, though an underlying factor in many of these projects is education, as they are largely pursued by university students. Aside from education and technology development, Earth observation and science are the key applications, and it is in these that growth is anticipated.
“For instance, Axelspace in Japan plans to deploy a commercial 50 satellite Earth imaging constellation in the coming years, while a consortium of governments in the region are considering a 25 to 50 satellite Earth imaging constellation,” says Carolyn Belle, senior analyst at NSR. “By 2025, NSR forecasts that Asian smallsat launch rates will more than double, exceeding the North American growth rate. North America may still be the leader, but it will be a more balanced market regionally. Even giants from outside the space industry, such as Canon Electronics, have made steps to enter the smallsat market.”
Bengal Tigers and Satellites
Asian powerhouses India, China and Japan clearly have the capacity to manufacture and launch both large and small satellites. Then come South Korea and Singapore who have also entered the smallsat production market. How about Bangladesh? Home to the royal Bengal tiger and a mammoth mangrove forest, this South Asian country, punctuated by lush greenery and a multitude of waterways, has a part to play in this revolution too. Surprising or not, this just goes to show that far-out dreams can be achieved. This dream, according to Sajidur Rahman, assistant professor at the Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research (C3ER) at BRAC University, began in 2008.
“Bangladesh is a small country, considering its area and the relative economic growth, which can be said to be insufficient for it to yield space technology. Yet, interestingly enough, the country has quite a footprint of using satellite data and started to dream in 2008 of having a satellite in orbit,” says Rahman.
Realizing this translates into two satellites: a nanosat called BRAC ONNESHA, which is expected to be launch over the next few weeks by the Japan Aerosapce Exploration Agency (JAXA), and a large satellite called Bangabandhu 1 or BD-1, scheduled for lift-off this December. There are more to come, notes Rahman, adding that three “exceptional students” of BRAC University designed, developed and assembled the nanosat in collaboration with the Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech) and the Bangladesh Space Research Organization (SPARRSO). While BRAC ONNESHA is designed for research on communications and Earth observation, Bangabandhu 1 is intended to be a geostationary communications satellite for the duration of 15 years.
Earth observation is vital for Bangladesh, a natural disaster-prone country that is ranked as one of the most vulnerable nations with a climate-dependent agriculture-based economy. It is here that smallsats will make the greatest impact. In addition to significantly improving the management of disasters, smallsats can also be designed to monitor hazard-specific situations, such as storm surges, floods and drought. Individual smallsats can be launched for multifarious purposes including environmental protection, surveillance of land use and other spatiotemporal variations, explains Rahman.
“Due to their small budgets required, smallsats, having comparatively longer mission times, can be planned for every district or certain sub-districts in Bangladesh depending upon the topography as well as the variation of land use dynamics. SPARRSO, being a member of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) is attached to global satellite activities like Small Multi-Mission Satellite (SMMS) and Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) and so on,” says Rahman.
The Space Club
Like the bigwigs of the Asian space market, many smaller countries aim to launch their own satellites into orbit irrespective of the scale of implementation. Considering the breakdown of India’s world record launch, where only three of the 104 satellites are owned by India, 96 owned by the United
States, and one each by Israel, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland and the Netherlands, there is room for greater Asian ownership.
“However, with much demand for having several smallsats of their own, along with the advent of low-cost production and launching facilities, the Asian space market has been boosted and this will likely continue for the next decade or more,” says Rahman.
The burgeoning Asian smallsat market is linked to the opportunities and benefits they can provide to Asian societies, says NSR’s Belle, adding that smallsats provide a scope-limited and low-risk method of developing space know-how, especially critical for Asian countries with a nascent space industrial base such as the Philippines. This can both create jobs and help a country reach the elusive “space club” widely seen as a point of national prestige, she notes. As the industry develops, new commercial players emerge, further supporting job growth and the economy.
“A significant potential benefit of smallsats is in the applications. For instance, an Earth observation constellation can provide insight into agricultural yield potential and aid in natural resource management. The frequent natural disasters experienced across Asia can leave an impacted area without the communications and situational awareness required to mount an effective response. A smallsat constellation with a high revisit rate might provide the imagery needed to gauge damage, focus rescue efforts on the most affected areas, or provide emergency communications services until terrestrial systems are repaired,” says Belle.
Singapore and the Business Revolution
In the past, launch access was limited to the selected few, but today China, Japan and India have provided ease of access to each country’s launch facilities, resulting in unprecedented smallsat activities, explains Lim Wee Seng, executive director of the Satellite Research Centre at the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (NTU Singapore).
“New start-ups are beginning to make inroads across Asia in the aim of creating a new wave of business revolution. Although their exploration activities may seem small as compared to Europe and America, it is a matter of time before Asia will catch up with their giant cousins. We will always need new ideas in the space community. The interest in space is always very inspiring, and the desire for growth in new business opportunities and new technology shall propel this to new heights,” says Wee Seng.
Singapore is a newcomer in the satellite sector, however, it has grown significantly in the past few years, explains Wee Seng. From the early stage, where only NTU Singapore was driving the development of satellites, there are now more research institutes, companies and start-up activities in Singapore.
“We have the Office for Space Technology & Industry of the Economic Development Board to thank, as they have been an effective match-maker that brings Singapore’s space communities together, forming a closely-knit ecosystem. With a clear strategy and focused drive in capitalizing our resources, we foresee that Singapore will be able to drive exponential growth in our space industry,” says Wee Seng.
Government grants and potential lucrative new business opportunities are just some of the pull factors that explain the proliferation of smallsat projects, adds Wee Seng.
“An interesting fact is that venturing into space has become enticing; it’s no longer a dream. Satellite parts can be easily acquired, cost is no longer exorbitant and launch services providers are also readily available now. We believe these new revolutions are the driving force behind the recent surge in business interests. It’s always such commercialization potential and realization that drives exponential growth in the industry. In no time, smallsats may potentially be the answer to faster and more accurate data, and could well be the key contributor in a disruptive technology, just like how smartphones have changed the way we get information. We expect the privatization of the space industry to create the next wave of changes to our daily life,” says Wee Seng.
Smallsats’ Big Appeal
Smallsats may have previously been considered as a technology demonstrator, but today, even traditional satellite companies are starting to change gears, says Wee Seng, adding that they are now focusing on smallsats to help uncover potential revenue streams. Aerospace company Thales Alenia Space has a joint lab with NTU Singapore, named S4TIN, the Smart Small Satellite System Thales in NTU. This lab aims to combine academic space concepts, research findings, practical experiences and real business needs with potential commercialization projects, riding on the small satellite segment.
“Smallsats in Asia serve different needs as compared to Europe and America. With increased involvement by Asian companies, we hope competition will drive better ideas and better cost structure for the space communities. The internet brought us global linkages and the smartphone has enabled technology to a much easier reach for business and personal enjoyment. When more smallsat applications are launched, we will be able to have access to more focused data. With valuable information available, the push on the current development of the Internet of Things (IOT) and Big Data analysis will be accelerated, setting the ideal stage for a seamless smart world,” says Wee Seng.
An International Affair
The smallsat revolution has resulted in a synergistic movement in Asia, bringing about numerous achievements, explains Mengu Cho, director of the Laboratory of Spacecraft Environment Interaction Engineering (LaSEINE) at Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech). Smallsats have made it possible not just for government and private entities to access space, but also educational entities. Through the development of university-based satellite projects, different international collaborative efforts have emerged.
“The Vietnam National Satellite Center (VNSC) designed, developed and launched its first cubesat in collaboration with Tokyo University. As part of the latest Japanese efforts toward capacity building, another interesting example is the BIRDS program, proposed at Kyutech since 2015, which aims, through Master or PhD courses, at training young professionals from non-space fairing nations to design, develop, test and operate cubesats. Through this program, the trained young professionals acquire the necessary skills to be able to develop indigenous sustainable space programs once they return to their home country,” says Cho, adding that up to February 2017, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines, Malaysia, Bhutan, Taiwan and Thailand were part of the BIRDS program.
Successful collaborations on cubesat programs are further strengthened by the fact that Japan has developed and is operating the Kibo module on board the International Space Station (ISS) that allows satellites up to 50kg to be released in space. In 2016, the first ever developed Philippine satellite, Diwata-1, was released from the ISS through the Kibo module. Diwata-1 was developed in partnership with the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology, University of the Philippines, Hokkaido University, and Tohoku University. The satellite is the first of a series of satellites that aim at assisting in disaster management. In addition to the Philippines, partners from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Thailand and Vietnam are taking part in the project.
“Japanese industries have also adapted to the smallsat market and are developing efficient and reliable space components dedicated to smallsats. In their latest efforts, they established the Makesat website in which those components are presented and available to the international smallsat community,” says Pauline Faure, a former smallsat project manager at Kyutech’s LaSEINE.
Across Asia, numerous counties are benefiting from the smallsat revolution, developing space programs both at university and government level through the establishment of space agencies, explains Cho. In Singapore, Nanyang Technological University developed, launched, and operated several smallsats. In Thailand, King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok is currently developing its first in-house cubesat. This is after the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, GISTDA, was established in 2000. From a national initiative standpoint, Indonesia established its national space agency LAPAN in 1963. In 2002, Malaysia established its national space agency, ANGKASA, and has since then developed, launched and operated several satellites for Earth observations or communications purposes.
“Overall, global efforts are underway in Asia to develop satellite-based technologies, but also ground stations and launch capabilities. Thanks to the miniaturization of satellites and the smallsat revolution, these efforts are not only concentrated in government or private-led entities, but also educational entities, which can serve as a catalyst to build a country’s capacities, to develop infrastructures, and advance human knowledge,” says Cho. VS