Singapore’s (Outer) Space Ambitions

As many of us eagerly await Netflix’s The Office’-like parody, Space Force (starring none other than Steve Carell!), it is also a good time to re-visit some of Singapore’s own endeavours in this fledging sector

Photo by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash

Space, the final frontier.

Those are the famous words uttered by my favourite science fiction character, the Starfleet officer, Jean-Luc Picard. Growing up, science fiction was a staple in my entertainment diet and it has endured throughout the decades.

Even if you’re not a fan of the Star Trek franchise, you would be familiar with Hollywood’s vast offerings of science fiction dealing with super heroes and planetary travel.

Space travel in real life, however, is often associated with the geopolitics of major powers funding their respective space agencies, to break milestones in space exploration.

In the 1950s through to the 60s, the space race between the United States and Soviet Union captured the world’s imagination.

The Soviet Union claimed early victories by sending the first man and woman into space: Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, in 1961 and 1963, respectively. While the Americans ultimately became the first to send astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in July 1969

Over the decades, moon missions have lost traction. NASA’s last visit to the moon was in December 1972. The Soviet Union’s space programme also faltered with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the breakup of the USSR.

The playing field for the space race would subsequently expand, with the entry of other major powers: Japan, China and India.

Back in the US, space technology has of recent decades been powered by corporate titans like Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origins.

The hunger to explore space has remained strong since the days of the space race.

Why travel to space?

Space travel may seem almost wasteful when here on earth, society is confronted by so many problems such as poverty and climate change. But did you know that some of the everyday modern tech conveniences that we enjoy today are a result of space research?

These are things such as GPS, weather prediction, and satellite broadcast.

That’s why governments around the world and the private sector have continued to pursue space technology. The reasons are numerous:

  1. Better rocket propulsion that could benefit aviation;
  2. Better energy efficiency;
  3. Potential breakthroughs in health care and safety;
  4. Robotics, and
  5. Communication

The findings lead into discoveries that can result in better technology for society, and everyday citizens’ livelihoods.

In a 2018 study, American researchers started work on finding a way to help astronauts combat the physical damage that weightlessness can have on their bodies. The lack of gravity, or microgravity, in space means that astronauts do not use their muscles much. They can end up losing muscle and bone density. While the success of the study would benefit astronauts, it may also lead to breakthroughs people suffering from arthritis and joint pain.

Singapore’s role in space tech

Singapore launched its own exploration into space tech in 2013 when EDB setup the Office of Space Technology and Industry. Its goal was to play a role in the value chain of this fast commercialising space industry. Globally, space tech had started to be driven by commercial entities, and cost of technology was becoming cheaper.

As of 2018, Singapore’s fledging space industry provides jobs for some 1,000 people and more than 30 companies, with startups and SMEs here focused on areas such as satellites, satellite communications and image data analytics, and more. Some of these 30 space-tech companies based in the city are:

  • Addvalue Technologies: The SGX-listed company prides itself as a “one-stop shop” communications technology products developer. It says it “provides state-of-the-art satellite-based communication and other innovative digital broadband products…”
  • Aliena: This space tech company says it “designs, develops, and provides ultra-low power electric propulsion systems for small satellite platforms.”
  • SpeQtral Quantum Technologies: The team says it is the only one “that has demonstrated a miniaturized source of entangled photons in space.” I have no idea what that means…

Commercial entities aside, both universities, NUS and NTU, have also been heavily involved with space tech over the years. NTU’s Satellite Research Centre (SaRC) is a local pioneer, having been established in 2009. The team has launched nine satellites over the past two decades, including Singapore’s first locally designed and developed micro-satellite, X-SAT. Its latest satellite, AOBA-VELOX-IV, was a collaboration with the Kyushu Institute of Technology. It was launched in 2019 “to demonstrate propulsion and low light camera capabilities for small satellites to carry out future lunar missions.”

Singapore’s first space man

To further spur Singapore’s space tech sector and ignite community interest, local entrepreneur Marvyn Lim Seng has made it his mission to send a Singaporean man to space. The move is more symbolic than scientific marvel, because it involves putting a man in a capsule and using a helium-filled balloon for liftoff.

The goal is to go beyond what’s known as the Armstrong line, a point that is 20 kilometres above ground. This is a height that is known as the “edge of space, and where saliva apparently boils.” Once the balloon crosses the line, the capsule will then be released for landing back to earth.

Their 2nd attempt set for 15th May 2018 was captured in this CNA documentary (Spoiler: it was thwarted by strong winds):

Marvyn’s first attempt in 2015 didn’t happen too, because the team as missing a “controlled military grade item“. A third attempt in 2019 was aborted mid-liftoff because of a collision.

A fourth attempt set of 15 March 2020 is unlikely to have taken place because of either a lack of funding and/or Covid-19. I messaged the company IN.Genius’s Facebook page, to ask for an update bubt there was no response. Nevertheless, I wish the team all the best.

While our neighbours in Asia such as China and India have pumped money into state-linked organisations, Singapore’s has taken the private path. And, so far, this approach looks promising.

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