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Asia’s Space Industry Growing, But Challenges Remain

By Caleb Henry | May 12, 2016
      Asia DTH

      Asia at night. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

      [Via Satellite 05-12-2016] Asia’s satellite industry is increasingly becoming a larger part of the global industry, but new players are still often learning fundamental steps on how to navigate the global stage. According to experts speaking May 10 at the Secure World Foundation’s “Challenges and Opportunities Facing New Space Actors” session, new players are often government driven and are “learning the ropes” concurrently with the development of new space systems.

      Jean-Michel Eid, managing director of Space Partnership International (SPI), said that his company, which provides consulting and support to governments in the space business, often finds very high levels of enthusiasm but “nightmare administrative processes” that prolong and complicate new satellite programs.  These new programs can end up cycling through various ministries for months and months, delaying action on Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and sometimes even causing newer satellite programs to start with antiquated technology because of their protracted approval processes.

      “Most of the time the initiating RFP comes from a ministry that reports to another ministry. That creates levels and levels of hierarchy that make it very, very difficult to understand really who is calling the decisions for this program,” he said.

      Asia is one of the most dynamic markets for new entrants today, with countries such as Laos, Bangladesh, and Myanmar buying and launching their first telecom satellites in recent years. Private operators such as Kacific and Indonesia’s Bank Rakyat Indonesia are also actively brining about new satellite systems, adding to capacity supplied from other regional operators such as Thaicom, Measat, KT Sat, APT Satellite, and Sky Perfect JSAT to name a few, along with global operators. In remote sensing, Singapore launched it’s first domestically built satellite last year, and the Philippines, through the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), deployed its first home-grown Earth Observation (EO) satellite last month.

      While there are a number of success stories in this region, Eid cautioned that new programs can face many challenges, such as chronic delays and limited support through public opinion. He added that sometimes ministries think that launching the satellite alone is the end goal, when a long-term plan is actually much more necessary.

      “You have to create an operational company within the mindset of the government,” he said.

      Government-inspired space programs dominate across most of Asia, according to Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head of the nuclear and space policy initiatives at the Observer Research Foundation in India, but there are signs that commercial involvement is growing as well.

      “Private sector participation has been particularly a Western experience, but I think this is changing in Asia,” she said. “India’s space program, for instance, is a state-run program, but something to the tune of 70 percent is being outsourced to private sector participants.”

      The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is one of the increasingly influential players in the space industry, having recently completed the manufacture and launch of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) constellation last month. India is also a large market for satellite services such as Direct-to-Home (DTH) broadcasting, but the complex regulatory environment is sometimes stifling. Rajagopalan said there are institutional as well as legal changes the government needs to make so that the private sector is given a more prominent space, with ISRO acting more as a facilitator in the coming years.

      Rajagopalan worries that if such changes are not expedited, India could cede its burgeoning authority in the space industry to other players. While the country has highlighted the successful launch of foreign satellites such as the Spot 7 EO satellite for Airbus Defence and Space, ST Electronics’ TeLEOS 1, and four microsatellites for the U.S. company Spire, she said the amount ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix generates compared to China is noticeably underwhelming.

      “I think India is kind of beginning to lose its edge because India has some deficiencies which it needs to attend to on a priority basis. The launching pad for instance — the debate for a second and third launch pad in India has gone on for more than five or six years. There has been no decision on that, which means that India launches something like four to five launches per year as against China which does like 20 launches per year. There, the numbers are very startling,” she said.

      Rajagopalan added that there have been conversations about commercializing ISRO’s flagship rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), but “not on a priority basis.”

      Elsewhere in Asia commercial space companies are growing in number. Among them is Singapore-based Astroscale, which is developing satellites for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) with a long-term goal of facilitating Active Debris Removal (ADR). Philippe Moreels, head of strategy and business development at Astroscale, said the company raised $7.7 million in series A funding, followed by $35 million in a series B round with investors, and has opened a manufacturing facility in Tokyo, Japan.

      “We decided to look, with our first mission, at sub-millimeter sized debris, which we don’t know much about — we just know that there should be a few hundred million of them. We want to know where are the most concentrated areas for this debris and also try to understand a bit more about fragmentation events,” said Moreels.

      Astroscale’s first demonstration satellite is launching late this year or early next year, followed by another mission in 2018. Moreels said the second satellite will prove out technologies such as an ion propulsion system, and the features needed to capture and deorbit debris and derelict spacecraft. He acknowledged that legal issues to ADR persist, mainly due to dual-use concerns, along with challenges related to who will finance ADR missions. Still, Moreels said he hopes commercial companies can spur on these conversations, and that Singapore was the ideal location to start such discussions because of its cordial relations with the United States, Russia and China.

      “When building the company, the focus was mostly on ADR and how ADR could be feasible in the future. For these purposes it is better to be in a country that is neutral and has good relationships with, let’s say, the three countries that produced the most debris,” he said.

      Singapore has attracted the attention of many big-name satellite companies. In recent years Inmarsat, NSSLGlobal, Thales Alenia Space, Orbital ATK, and Spire have all opened offices in the country.