Emerging Space Economies in Asia-Pacific

At present, Space capabilities in the Asia Pacific region are largely dominated by the superpowers — China, India and Japan. However, in recent years, other nations in the region have also started embracing Space, motivated mainly by socio-economic developments and the aspiration to become self-reliant in terms of national security. While some countries may be more ambitious than others, a Space race is definitely on amongst all these nations.

Space activities underpin much of modern life. From advancing our understanding of the Earth, the universe and humanity, to enabling national security, space activities provide critical data, products, and services that drive innovation in our everyday lives. Access to and use of space are now a matter of national interest and, in some parts of the world, space is even considered a part of critical national infrastructure.

Today, the space sector is going through a historic period. Globally, space activities are accelerating rapidly, resulting in new opportunities in multiple sectors of the socio-economy. In the West, this revolution is driven by the commercial sector, thanks to high-profile NewSpace entrepreneurs. In the East, however, space programs are still largely government-driven.

The Asia Pacific nations are no exception. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan (R.O.C.), Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand are developing and expanding their indigenous space capabilities, following in the footsteps of the region’s space superpowers: China, India, and Japan.

Space as a national imperative

At present, only China, India, and Japan have comprehensive end-to-end space capabilities and possess a complete space infrastructure: space technology (communication, Earth Observation (EO) and navigation satellites), satellite manufacturing, rockets, and spaceports. Other nations in the region have to rely on international cooperation to deliver their respective space programs. This is expected to change to some extent in the coming years though as many nations in the region are developing indigenous space capacity as part of their latest apace strategies.

In June 2022, South Korea launched its Nuri rocket, deploying six satellites into orbit, making it the seventh nation in the world to have successfully launched a greater-than-one-ton payload on a fully indigenous space launch vehicle.

The South Korean government recently announced USD 619 million investment in space in its 2022 budget, which includes the development of a spaceport, building a satellite-based navigation system and a 6G communications network. Launching a lunar orbiter and landing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon by 2031 are also part of the country’s ambitious space agenda.

Over the years, the country’s KOMPSAT series of Earth Observation satellites has been successful in providing very high resolution optical and SAR satellite imagery to the national and international user communities. The latest generation KOMPSAT-6 is currently awaiting launch.

Similar to South Korea, Taiwan also announced an ambitious USD 900 million investment to develop its space sector over the next decade. This includes launching ten domestically made satellites into space by 2028 and the development of a launch site. The Republic of China has launched a series of EO satellites through its FORMOSAT programs. The latest FORMOSAT-8 mission has six satellites that are expected to be launched between 2024 and 2029.

Australia, on the other hand, has been heavily reliant on EO data from the international community. The Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028 highlights the country’s ambition to strengthen its Earth Observation sovereignty, positioning, navigation and timing capability, and explore its potential as a commercial launch site.

Enrico Palermo Head, Australian Space Agency

“Space technologies are critical capabilities that support our people, our planet and our prosperity. Space as a sector is a national imperative that should be considered by all developed countries as a key area of investment.”

EO for socio-economic benefits

The space programs of countries in the Southeast Asia region are relatively modest compared to their more developed counterparts. Since the region suffers from a long list of recurrent large-scale environmental challenges, including storms and flooding, forest fires and deforestation, and crop failures, their space programs are more focused on addressing these challenges and generating socio-economic benefits.

Thailand was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to launch its own EO satellite. THEOS-1 was launched in 2008, in collaboration with the Government of France, to monitor agricultural areas, get updates on flood situations, and look at various aspects of natural resources management. The second generation satellite, THEOS-2, is expected to be launched in late 2022 or early 2023. The THEOS-2 project does not focus only on procuring a satellite from the main contractor but also on enhancing Thailand’s own capability for developing a small satellite. This would happen by cooperating with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) for satellite design and development. The project would also focus on human resource development in this field and on constructing AIT (Assembly, Integration, and Testing) buildings and other facilities as infrastructure to support the space economy in the country.

In 2021, the Thai government, in collaboration with academia, introduced the Thai Space Consortium (TSC), comprising 12 space technology-related agencies and research institutions in Thailand, to jointly develop and boost the country’s space capabilities. The Consortium aims to produce a total of five small satellites, completely made locally, between 2023 and 2027. A pilot satellite named TSC-Pathfinder is expected to be launched in 2023 for EO purposes. Another Earth Observation satellite, TSC-1, will be launched in 2025.

Tatiya Chuentragun Deputy Executive Director, Geo-Informatics & Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), Thailand

“In Thailand, space technology, industry, and related activities can be considered as a space economy — one of the new S-curve industries to support all major national strategies and plans such as National Strategies (2018-2037), the concept of Thailand 4.0, and also the 13th National Economic and Social Development Plan (draft), which focus on the country’s sustainable development in all dimension from innovations to high value-added industries and services.”

Vietnam too, in collaboration with the French government, launched its first optical Earth Observation satellite, VNREDSAT-1, in 2013, to better monitor and study the effects of climate change, predict and take measures to prevent natural disasters, and optimize the management of its natural resources. Vietnam and France signed another bilateral agreement in 2021 for the development of the follow-up VNREDSAT-2 program. The program is expected to significantly contribute towards amplifying Vietnamese space capabilities to address national needs, contribute to economic development and advance knowledge for societal well-being.

The Strategy for Development and Application of Space Science and Technology to 2030, was approved in 2021 with the aim of developing space science and technology capacity in the country.

Other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore have launched a series of micro-satellites, mostly products of research and development through government- academia cooperation.

There have been a lot of interesting developments with respect to the formation of national space agencies in the region in the last five years.

Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano Jr. Director General, Philippine Space Agency

“The capacity of space to inspire current and future generations of innovators in addressing today’s pressing challenges and in building for the future must not be discounted. Investments in these capabilities support the creation of new knowledge that drives the scientific enterprise, boosts the local knowledge workforce and innovations, and fosters international cooperation.”

National space agencies

In any country, the space ecosystem is a complex network of stakeholders, which includes organizations and businesses central to space-related activity and value creation (from upstream to downstream); facilitators of such activities; and the ultimate beneficiaries or end-users. The ecosystem requires a focal point to guide and create a framework that could drive space activities and values. There have been a lot of interesting developments with respect to the formation of national space agencies in the region in the last five years.

The Australian Space Agency was established in 2018 to coordinate civil space matters within the government and support the growth and transformation of Australia’s space industry. Australia did not have a space agency until then.

The Philippine Space Act 2019 established the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) as the central government agency addressing all national issues and activities related to space science, technology and applications. The Philippines, too, did not have a space agency until then.

“A primary role of government in this context is to provide an environment that enables the components of the domestic space value chain, both in the upstream and downstream, to grow and gain in strength. Where these components are not present or are nascent in industry or the private sector, the government can contribute to the ‘heavy lifting’,” explains Marciano.

Also in 2019, the Malaysian Cabinet approved the merging of the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) with the National Space Agency (ANGKASA) into one focal organization — the Malaysian Space Agency (MYSA). This was done to ensure that the development and management of the space sector in the country is undertaken in a strategic, organized and comprehensive manner.

In the future, regional space collaboration will be fundamental to reducing the gap in space capabilities and enhancing security.

In 2021, the Indonesian government took a bold decision to liquidate over 40 of its ministerial and state research agencies and create the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) as its sole national research organization. One of the liquidated agencies was the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN), which had a long history of authority in the field of aerospace and space in Indonesia.

In March 2022, the Indonesian Space Agency (INASA) was formed as a special body under BRIN, for Indonesia to carry on space political functions, including coordination in space policy, political lobby, and international partnership.

South Korea enacted its Space Development Promotion Act back in 2005. However, in 2021, the country’s National Assembly Science and Technology Committee announced the proposal to amend the Act to include the establishment of a national space agency with budgetary and R&D discretionary authority to promote the development of the South Korean space industry.

The agency would fall under the control of the President and be responsible for the much-needed coordination of the different entities involved in the management of national space policies and efforts. Presently, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) oversees research and development while key decisions and policies are handled mostly by the National Space Committee.

As the region covers a unique and diverse group of economies, the space focus and strategy for each economy is naturally diverse as well. However, rising government investments, backed by enabling space policies, are a step in the right direction for these emerging economies to maintain substantial positions in the modern space landscape.

Similarly, the Space Development Act, which passed its final reading in Taiwan’s Legislature in May 2022, mandated the reorganization of the National Space Organization (NSPO) into the National Space Center, a non-departmental public body. The Act covers activities such as registration of launch and space vehicles; approval of launch projects; establishment, operation and management of launch sites; and the use of data obtained during missions.

Encouraging private sector participation

Looking further, the only way emerging economies can ensure a sustainable space sector is by encouraging the private sector to participate in the investment and creation of value-added products and services. Creating an enabling regulatory environment is crucial in this regard.

In 2018, the Australian Space Agency amended Australia’s previous Space Act, which had rigid and outdated legislation that would not support the current fast-moving and highly commercialized space sector.

“The immediate challenge that we had to overcome was to remove barriers for industry participation so we could foster growth and innovation across the sector while ensuring safety and national interests could be appropriately managed,” says Palermo.

The amended Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 now provides more clarity and flexibility for the Australian space sector to access space for commercial purposes.

Vietnam in collaboration with the French government, launched its first optical EO satellite, VNREDSAT-1, in 2013

Thailand is currently drafting its National Space Act to create a framework that will guide and encourage more players and businesses to participate in the industry. According to Chuentragun, it is the first time that Thailand has initiated policy and law mechanisms to promote the space economy in the country: “To clarify roles and responsibilities, and to convince stakeholders that the Act and the master plan will be beneficial for the country’s development as a whole, has been a long and complex process. However, it is underway now and we are nearing our goal.”

The second challenge is the content of the National Space Act and the master plan that needs to be more supportive rather than controlling and depriving; the Act should also develop a clear and common frame for everyone. This is important to attract more investors, manufacturers, SMEs, and startups to enter the space industry and business, adds Chuentragun.

Compared to other nations in the region, Singapore and New Zealand are dominated more by commercial activity rather than being driven by a large governmental space program.

Singapore’s space industry has grown steadily over the years. There are over 50 companies, including many startups, engaged in a wide range of space-related activities from the design and manufacture of space components to the provision of satellite-based services.

David Tan Executive Director, Office for Space Technology & Industry, Singapore

“Through our SGD150 million (USD108 million) Space Technology Development Programme, we seek to grow Singapore’s space ecosystem and industry by nurturing local researchers and space-based companies to serve national priorities and be internationally competitive.”

 

In 2019, the New Zealand government signed an agreement with its American partner, MethaneSAT LLC, to build a satellite designed to detect global methane emissions. The satellite is scheduled for launch in October 2022 and is New Zealand’s first government-funded space mission.

In 2017, Rocket Lab, a public American aerospace manufacturer and launch service provider, successfully launched its first test rocket on the Mahia Peninsula, making New Zealand one of 11 countries currently able to launch satellites into space from their own territory.

Future prospects

With continued advancements in technology, as well as the emergence of new business models and commercial applications, the long-term prospects for the space industry in the region are bright. These include potential opportunities in emerging domains such as In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) and on-orbit servicing and assembly, in addition to traditional domains of satellite communications, navigation and EO.

As the region covers a unique and diverse group of economies, the space focus and strategy for each economy is naturally diverse as well. However, rising government investments, backed by enabling space policies, are a step in the right direction for these emerging economies to maintain substantial positions in the modern space landscape.

Although presently each economy is focusing on national development, in the future, regional space collaboration will be fundamental to reducing the gap in space capabilities and enhancing security. This is how the region can claim its stake in the upcoming trillion-dollar global space industry.

The space race may not be equal as of now but it could lead to a totally new space landscape in the years to come. The Asia Pacific is definitely a region to watch.

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