As NASA launches its most detailed mission yet to Mars, Southeast Asian nations are also working on space programmes, albeit on a much smaller scale. What is in it for them and how are they making it work?
As NASA looks for signs of life on Mars, it seems an odd time for Myanmar to focus on sending satellites into space while civil conflicts rage on the ground and the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the country is not interested in exploring new frontiers or entering a “space race” to prove its technological prowess. Its space programme, developed in collaboration with experts at Hokkaido University and Tohuku University in Japan, aims to improve connectivity, mitigate the impacts of natural disasters and boost crop production.
Myanmar first stepped up its space plans in 2017 when it set up a steering committee to develop its own satellite system. In August 2019, it launched Myanmar-sat2 to deliver improved broadband and video distribution services.
As Myanmar aims to get 95% of its population online by 2022, the new satellite means they no longer have to pay upwards of US$10 million per year to rent satellite channels from China, Thailand, the US and Vietnam. The savings will go towards covering some of the US$155.7 million Myanmar spent on its launch.
Engineers from Myanmar will eventually build their own satellites
One of the reasons that Myanmar wants to build and launch its own satellites is to save money. Seven engineers from the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University were due to go to Japan in March to begin their training with a view to designing, building and launching two satellites in the next five years.
These will be microsatellites weighing no more than 50 kilogrammes and measuring around 50 centimetres per side. They will enable scientists in Myanmar to monitor weather systems, crops and land usage—from urbanisation to spotting illegal activity such as logging and mining.
COVID-19 delayed the engineers’ departure but the cost of the programme—funded by Myanmar’s government—will be US$16 million, a fraction of what it would cost to build and launch the type of large satellites that Southeast Asian nations cannot afford.
“It’s simply less expensive if we build our own satellite,” said Kyi Thwin, the aerospace university’s rector, adding that the programme could also boost Myanmar’s economy. It is a plausible claim: every dollar the US has spent in space has delivered, according to estimates, anything from US$7-40 in economic returns.
However, it all depends on COVID-19—if borders do not reopen then the scientists will not be able to travel to Japan and they will likely miss the initial launch date, scheduled for 2021.
What will these satellites do?
Despite their size and weight, these “microsatellites” possess advanced imaging technology. They can send back detailed pictures of wide tracts of land regularly, allowing those interpreting the data to track changes.
For example, they can show farmers what is happening in fields that may be hard to reach, leading to fewer wasted trips to check on crops. The same Japanese universities collaborating with Myanmar helped the Philippines launch a satellite in 2016 that proved instrumental in detecting disease in bananas.
The instruments could alert authorities to changes in areas that would otherwise go unnoticed, perhaps enabling them to move in and prevent illegal practices such as logging or mining before too much damage is done to the local environment.
Primarily, however, the satellites will monitor weather systems such as typhoons and detect seismic activity. Early detection of severe weather patterns will enable authorities to move people and livestock away from danger, saving lives and money. In the aftermath of disasters, the satellites will show scientists how quickly areas are recovering.
“It is not just a matter of launching a satellite and taking an image, but our goal is to bring truly practical outcomes by analysing the data acquired through the latest technology and observation methods,” explained Professor Yukihiro Takahashi, director of Hokkaido University’s Space Mission Center.
Without collaboration, there would be limited ASEAN presence in space
These ties with established space programmes are crucial for initiatives in places like Myanmar. Like many countries, it lacks the resources and technology to design and launch satellites itself, meaning it must work with others.
To this end, it has joined a nine-strong “super-constellation” of Asian nations, also including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, to launch and monitor microsatellites. Malaysia and Thailand will also eventually come on board.
Furthermore, Myanmar is part of an Asian micro-satellite consortium founded in 2016 which committed to sharing technology and observational data. In this way, ASEAN nations can move forward with space programmes that would otherwise be out of reach. The more satellites there are sending back pictures of the region, the better, particularly if all members have access to the data.
Will ASEAN play a part in Asia’s space race?
Indonesia has the most advanced space programme within ASEAN, being the first in the region to send geosynchronous satellites into space when NASA launched them in 1976. Vietnam’s Pham Tuân became the first Southeast Asian to go into space in 1980.
However, China, India and Japan have dominated the history of Asian space exploration. Like NASA, all three have launched missions to both Mars and the moon, with more planned, leading to some predictions that Asia might “win” the next space race.
ASEAN’s role in more advanced space exploration attempts will be limited. While an astronaut from the region may one day return to space or even set foot on another planet, it would be as part of another country’s programme. For now, Southeast Asia’s “space race” has smaller but no less important goals: ensuring natural resources are not wasted and averting potential disasters here on earth.