Space Commerce

Thailand’s Space Ambitions Illustrate Southeast Asia’s Rising Space Sector

By Blaine Curcio
June 14, 2023
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Thailand’s Space Ambitions Illustrate Southeast Asia’s Rising Space Sector
Pakorn Apaphant and Blaine Curcio speak at ASBW on June 7.
Image credit: ASBW.

In a region overshadowed by space industry powerhouses such as China and Japan, it has historically been easy to overlook Southeast Asia. A disparate region made up of roughly 700 million people living in about 10 countries (depending on one’s definition of “Southeast Asia”), most of the national space programs in Southeast Asia have been too small to garner attention from the outside world. But with a large remote population, propensity for natural disasters, and a desire to upgrade industrial bases, Southeast Asian countries, especially Thailand, have begun pouring more resources into their space programs.

This was clearly the case at the Asia Satellite Business Week (ASBW) conference in Singapore on June 7 and 8, with regional representatives showing off their big ambitions for the space sector. Also apparent during the conference is that compared to Western space programs that can feel far-removed from the reach of average people, Southeast Asian programs are a lot more grassroots — they feature projects to connect the unconnected, enhance access to meteorological data, and otherwise improve the lives of everyday people in these countries.

The Geo-informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) is the space agency of Thailand. During ASBW, your correspondent was lucky enough to sit down with the Agency’s Executive Director, Pakorn Apaphant, to talk about the country’s space ambitions. GISTDA aims to leverage space for the benefit of Thai citizens, and the agency is doing this in some innovative ways.

Apaphant quickly let the audience know that he was a jogger, regularly going out and doing 5km runs in Bangkok. Before going out for a run, though, he checks an app developed by GISTDA called เช็คฝุ่น, or “Check Dust,” which, as the name suggests, monitors the levels of PM 2.5 particulate dust — fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns — across Thailand using a combination of satellite and ground station data, updated hourly. GISTDA has worked on a public relations campaign to inform Thai people about the importance of monitoring air quality for their health and, as a result the app, with more than 50,000 downloads in the Google Play store, seems to have found a following.

But dust monitoring apps are far from the only activity run by GISTDA. According to Apaphant, the agency has also started working with Thailand’s agricultural sector to educate farmers on how to leverage satellite data to improve crop yields and optimize input prices. The agency conducts annual courses to educate companies and individuals on the benefits that can be derived from geospatial data.

Map of Thailand from the “Check Dust” app. Image credit: Google Play Store.

When asked about Thailand’s unique strengths in the space sector, Apaphant highlighted the country’s industrial base. Thailand is home to advanced manufacturing of vehicle components, and a slew of electronics (even rumors of MacBook assembly). With relatively low costs of labor, the country makes an interesting candidate for advanced manufacturing in general. As a result, GISTDA has pushed to develop a satellite assembly, integration, and testing (AIT) center in the country, taking advantage of these strengths.

Finally, Apaphant made an interesting reference to the possibility of a Thai launch site. Earlier this year, Thailand and South Korea announced plans for a joint feasibility study of such a site, and while it appears to be far off in the future, we may one day see rockets launching from the Land of Smiles.

Indonesia: connecting over 15,000 islands via satellite

Indonesia has been a pioneer of satcom among Asia-Pacific (APAC) nations, with the country having launched its first Palapa satellite all the way back in the mid-1970s. In more recent years though, the Indonesians have outdone themselves, with the BAKTI program, run by the Ministry of Telecommunications (KOMINFO), having ambitions to connect some 150,000 sites to satellite broadband over the coming years.

This week in Singapore, we heard updates from Agus Budi Tjahjono, Commercial Director of Pasifik Satellite Nusantara (PSN), the local satellite operator of the BAKTI program. According to Tjahjono, PSN will launch two satellites this year, namely Satria-1/Nusantara-3, and Nusantara-5, which will offer a combined 310 Gbps of throughput. In the words of Tjahjono, “we may be the biggest capacity provider in Asia starting at the end of this year.”

Even despite all this additional capacity, PSN is still finding that it may not have enough bandwidth to reach all the required sites and meet the needs of people in remote areas without connectivity. During ASBW, Tjahjono noted that PSN is providing more bandwidth per site. However, this might reduce the number of sites served by the two satellites from 150,000 to a mere 50,000, meaning that they are going to need more satellite capacity. With plans for thousands of sites in just Papua, for example, it’s clear that Indonesia’s satcom market is going to continue growing for some time, driven by support from KOMINFO and the BAKTI program.

Singapore’s space ambitions

Multiple speakers from the conference host nation, Singapore, discussed the space ambitions of the Lion City. David Foo of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore highlighted the potential of satellites to connect and optimize shipping in the nation’s ports and surrounding waters, including internet of things (IoT) connectivity for container ships, broadband to ships for crew welfare, and the possibility of having standards for satcom so as to simplify networks around the country’s crowded waterways.

David Tan of Singapore’s Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTin) noted opportunities for the space sector to optimize Singapore’s Changi Airport Terminal 5, and the upcoming Tuas Megaport being built in the city-state. Overall, Singapore’s representatives were clearly looking at space as a way of optimizing the city-state’s economy, pushing to remain on the cutting edge of technological innovation and economic efficiency.

Space in Southeast Asia: grassroots and tapping into local economies

When looking at space efforts in Southeast Asia, one main takeaway is that while there is some interest in science, most space projects in the region are economic in nature. Put bluntly, there are still wide swathes of Southeast Asia that are not developed. Of the region’s roughly 700 million people, hundreds of millions are underserved in terms of basic internet access. The region is prone to a variety of natural disasters, and farmers need better data about their crops. In short, while things like space science are cool and interesting, government budgets in Southeast Asia are finite, the level of development is uneven, and so most space projects are going to be aimed at improving the lives of everyday people.

Whether this is connecting the unconnected or making it easier for Thai joggers to monitor air quality, the key takeaway is that space projects in Southeast Asia should be people-focused and pragmatic, rather than pushing the technological cutting edge. Southeast Asia has all the right ingredients to create a successful space sector in the future, and moving forward, it’s going to be important to keep an eye on this young, vibrant, and up-and-coming part of the world.

Blaine Curcio

Blaine Curcio is the leading Chinese space industry analyst, having been based in Greater China since 2011, and having been working in the space and satcom sector since 2010. He is founder of Hong Kong-based Orbital Gateway Consulting, a research and consulting firm focused on the Chinese space sector, and is Affiliate Senior Consultant at Euroconsult, a leading space industry consulting firm.