Southeast Asia's space programs are among the world’s oldest. Recently, in the last decade, a shift has begun from externally sourced satellites and associated services, towards indigenously developed ones. Could collaborative indigenous satellites unlock new opportunities for the space economy in Southeast Asia?
Southeast Asia boasts among the world’s oldest and most established space programs. Indonesia’s space agency was set up in 1963, only five years after NASA in the United States. Fast forward 60 years to 2023, and among the 11 countries in Southeast Asia – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam – seven have produced satellites with the active involvement of local engineers, also called indigenous satellites. Despite this, collaborative satellite development projects remain scarce. It is rare for mission designers, engineers, and satellite operators from multiple Southeast Asian countries to work together to build and launch satellites. Could such collaborations unlock new opportunities for growing the space sector in Southeast Asia and beyond?
Indigenous Satellites Have Typically Been Developed By Collaborating Outside the Region
In fact, many indigenous Southeast Asian satellites have emerged via international collaboration, though usually with advanced space powers from beyond the region. For instance, the UK company Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) assisted Malaysian engineers to make the country’s earliest indigenous satellite, TiungSAT-1, in the late 1990s. Germany’s Technical University of Berlin supported the development of Indonesia’s LAPAN-TUBSat alongside Indonesian engineers in the 2000s. Japan-based Tohoku University and Hokkaido University provided facilities and training to Myanmar and Filippino engineers for developing their domestic satellites Lawkanat-1 and Diwata-1 in the 2010s. US-based California Polytechnic State University and Japan-based University of Tokyo worked with partners in Cambodia on early-stage satellite design projects at the start of the 2020s.
Based on these examples, two points are clear. On the one hand, levels of satellite development capability and utilisation are very different among countries in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have produced satellites domestically. Myanmar has developed an indigenous one overseas. Laos has purchased a “ready-to-fly” one. And Brunei, Cambodia, and Timor-Leste do not have any satellites. On the other hand, several countries have already established increasingly comprehensive space development ecosystems, able to build and operate their own satellites. These countries appear well positioned to take the lead in driving forward the next generation of collaborative indigenous satellite development projects, this time from within the region.
Scope For More Services Offered By Indigenous Satellites?
Despite this, at present, most satellite services in Southeast Asia are still sourced from outside the region. In terms of satellite applications, communications and Earth imaging (also known as remote sensing) have attracted especially strong interest from local governments and companies. These are among the largest segments of the space economy globally, but also respond to unique features of the region’s geography. Southeast Asia is among the world’s most vulnerable places to natural disasters and comprises tens of thousands of separate islands. Satellites are being used to support regional disaster management through frameworks like the Japan-led Sentinel Asia. It provides near real-time satellite imagery for free on request following a natural disaster, mainly from Japanese satellites, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region. Regarding telecommunications, most Southeast Asian countries use geostationary satellites (orbiting at high altitudes, around 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface) procured or leased from overseas, or simply purchase the services of international ones. The first satellite of Laos, LaoSat-1, is an example of the former. It was contracted to the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) for around 250 million USD, and launched in 2015.
This highlights one potential disadvantage of relying only on overseas satellites to meet local remote sensing and telecommunications needs: cost. For example, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet services have already been rolled out in several dozens of countries around the world. However, the cost of purchasing a terminal and a monthly subscription is beyond the reach of ordinary citizens in many Southeast Asian countries, even though it would help to bridge connectivity gaps. Moreover, satellite imagery for government and commercial applications usually needs to be purchased at a cost, to meet quality and availability requirements. For instance, in 2018 the government of Myanmar is reported to have spent around 12 million USD on satellite imagery across various ministries.
Another consideration is security. Images from bespoke remote sensing satellites can more closely respond to the needs of local governments and industry than off-the-shelf commercial remote sensing data. Indigenous communications satellites may be more desirable than ones operated overseas, for applications touching on national security. Demands for independent national capabilities in satellite-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) have also witnessed recent growth around the world. Despite these trends, as expressed by a leading space practitioner in the Philippines, promoting security does not preclude international collaboration: in appropriate frameworks, both are complementary. It is possible for a country to “strive for self-reliance in some areas of space science and technology to ensure its independent access and capabilities, without overlooking the need for cooperation in other areas”.
Against this backdrop, indigenous satellites have attracted attention as a promising means of growing the space economy via collaboration from within the region. Space technology development capabilities vary significantly between Southeast Asian countries. Available funding for space also remains modest compared to that in overseas counterparts like the EU and the US. In this context, regional collaboration has been identified as a method for pooling resources and sustainably growing local capacity for satellite technology development. Several such initiatives have already been launched.
Regional Collaboration For Indigenous Satellites: Current Status
One example in academia is ASEANSAT, a collaborative 1U CubeSat project bringing together team members from three Southeast Asian countries. It is led by Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia, with participation by the University of Perpetual Help System Dalta (UPHSD) in the Philippines, and Pensmith STEM International School in Thailand. The satellite design is based on heritage from an earlier project by Malaysian engineers at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan. According to Professor Mohamad Huzaimy Jusoh, Principal Investigator of ASEANSAT, in the project, an “International network between universities in ASEAN countries, government agencies as well as international space agency will be established which will drive into the development of Nanosatellite technology in participating ASEAN countries”. The satellite is planned to perform several missions including Earth observation and store-and-forward communications, with a focus on education and technology demonstration. The development of ASEANSAT has also been supported by private and government institutions.
Another example in industry, again led by Malaysia, is the company Angkasa-X. The startup has been referred to as the “Space-X of the ASEAN region”. It is working “to provide internet-connectivity to rural areas in Southeast Asia where traditional terrestrial fiber network is limited and therefore improve the standard of living and aims to eradicate poverty for Asian-people living in the rural areas. (…) It aspires to be a unicorn and the number one go-to company for LEO satellite-based Internet services in ASEAN.” Angkasa-X already launched its first satellite in summer 2023, having received significant investment from a Kuala Lumpur based business incubator, and eventually plans to put into orbit a constellation of many satellites called A-SEANLINK. Alongside infrastructure for space, on the ground the company is building a SpaceTech Park in Malaysia as a hub for cross-sectoral and international cooperation in space technology development.
The above projects highlight the start of a slowly growing shift in the Southeast Asian space sector, from externally sourced satellites and associated services, towards indigenously developed ones. One pillar supporting this new space ecosystem is locally built satellite technologies. Although the region’s space programs are among the world’s oldest, services provided by indigenous satellites have only just begun to emerge as a competitive offering in the global space market. One enabler has been regional collaboration, centred around those countries already having developed, launched, and operated their own domestic satellites.
At the same time, the future is uncertain. There have been few public updates on the ASEANSAT project since January this year, and limited public information is available on the outcome of Angkasa-X’s first satellite mission, launched in June. It remains to be seen what their impact will be. More broadly, the popularisation of collaborative satellite development in Southeast Asia may hinge on the availability of supporting frameworks for seamless exchanges of space technologies and space-ready human resources between countries, both of which are currently few.
Ultimately, some Southeast Asian nations may decide not to develop indigenous satellites. Downstream space applications like off-the-shelf geospatial data utilisation and ready-to-use communications services may emerge more favourably from cost-benefit analyses than upstream ones like satellite and launcher development. Looking back on the last decade, the story of space in Southeast Asia has been marked by rapid new developments. The next pages of the story are also likely to be dynamic, with new protagonists from within the region setting the tone for chapters to come, including via regional satellite development.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Maximilien Berthet is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo, Japan. His research interest lies in small satellite mission design and analysis, with a focus on solar sails and drag sails for novel applications in Earth orbit. Dr. Berthet also conducts research on space capacity building and the history of space development in Southeast Asia.