It is truly a modern marvel that our tiny island country with little in the way of natural resources is widely considered a leading figure in trade and commerce. A key driver for this success has been the investment in world-class seaports and airports around Singapore.
With this in mind, we might be forgiven for having our sights set firmly on the surface of Earth, avoiding the heady temptation of reaching for the stars. After all, there’s no way our little island can harbour anything more than dreams of venturing into the final frontier that is space… is there?
Singapore: A space odyssey
The space program in Singapore can be traced back to a scientific collaboration between the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), resulting in the opening of the Laboratory for Image and Signal Processing (LISP) in 1988.
Not long after, LISP decided to extend its reach to include studying images of Earth beamed down from satellites, a rapidly growing field at the time. By 1992, the aptly acronym-ed Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP) was operational, housing a receiving station with a tracking antenna that could acquire data from satellites as they moved across the sky.
Satellites are objects that are launched into the atmosphere so that they orbit the Earth. Just like the Earth revolves around the Sun, satellites make their way around the Earth, helping us with communications, imaging, navigation and other tasks from space. Thousands of satellites are currently in Earth’s orbit, from giant structures like the International Space Station (which can house up to 13 astronauts) to tiny, calculator-sized devices.
In 1998, the very first Singaporean satellite was launched into orbit. Part-owned by local telecommunications company SingTel, the ST-1 satellite provided broadcast and internet coverage until it de-orbited in 2011. 2011 also coincided with the lift-off of the X-SAT satellite, a collaboration between Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and DSO National Laboratories. Equipped with imaging and data processing hardware, it was the first truly ‘Made in Singapore’ satellite.
Singapore established its own Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) in 2013, a standalone national space office, to grow the local space ecosystem, establish partnerships with space programs internationally and develop a space sector-ready workforce.
Fast forward to 2022, with the Singapore government announcing an SG$150 million initiative to support the R&D of local space companies through OSTIn. Along with this funding, the government also outlined its space strategy, which aims to develop space capabilities that could complement existing sectors such as communication (broadcasting and internet access), trade (shipping and flight routes) and transport (GPS for ride-hailing and delivery).
Over 50 space and space-related companies are currently based in Singapore, with their capabilities centred around developing satellites and their components. While satellites may not be the most glamorous aspect of space programs, they play vital roles in collecting Earth data that would otherwise be impossible. Since X-SAT’s launch in 2011, local companies have developed and launched more than 15 satellites into Earth’s orbit; several Singaporean satellites are highlighted below.
Launched in December 2015 aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the TeLEOS-1 ‘minisatellite’ is still one of the largest Singaporean satellites in orbit, with a mass of 400 kg. The primary role of TeLEOS-1 in orbit is to take high-quality pictures along the equator of the Earth at short notice, providing security and disaster monitoring.
Kent Ridge 1 (KR1)
As part of the same payload as TeLEOS-1, the Kent Ridge 1 (KR1) microsatellite is another locally designed satellite. Its main purpose is hyperspectral imaging, equipped with cameras that can capture both visible colours and infrared light. This technology can be used to give us more information than traditional images. For example, hyperspectral imaging can differentiate between the types of rocks in a mountain range or the vegetation in a rainforest.
The 2.6 kg SpooQy-1 resembles a shoebox more than it does a satellite. It was launched in 2020 as part of the Centre for Quantum Technologies’ quest to confirm the existence of a quantum phenomenon known as ‘entanglement’ in orbit. The data from SpooQy-1 provides a framework for future cost-effective quantum communications satellites, where information can be transmitted across longer distances than the optic fibres we currently use.
Just when you thought satellites couldn’t get any smaller, the VELOX P3 picosatellite weighs just 250 grams! Easily mistaken for an orbiting smartphone or calculator, its role is to help satellites in space communicate with each other. Another fun fact about VELOX P3 was that it was built, designed and operated entirely by students at NTU’s College of Engineering.
One of the newest microsatellites in orbit, NeuSAR was launched on 30 June 2022, a collaboration between DSO National Laboratories and OSTIn. NeuSAR is unique because it uses a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instead of optical hardware for imaging, sending radio waves to Earth and collecting the returned signals—much like how dolphins and bats use sonar to ‘see’ in poor visibility. This allows NeuSAR to capture images under dense cloud cover and other environmental conditions.
Looking to the future
Our space development plan is geared toward smaller-scale projects like the Singaporean satellite programs mentioned above. At the time of writing, there is a robust pipeline of over 15 ongoing projects in Singapore. While it would be incredible to count shuttle launches, missions to Mars and giant telescopes in space among our achievements, several factors make these feats impractical for us.
For starters, the cost of operating a full-fledged space program is staggering. NASA’s 2022 budget was US$24 billion (SG$34 billion), more than what the Singapore government allocates to healthcare and education combined.
Another factor is space (well, land space). Despite years of land reclamation projects, Singapore spans a total area of only 733 km2. In comparison, NASA’s primary launch facility—the Kennedy Space Center—covers a cool 580 km2. If the facility were to be somehow transported to Singapore, it would take up 80% of our island!
Despite these barriers, Singapore’s reputation as a global hub makes it an attractive location for the innovation and business side of space development, which is predicted to see tremendous growth in the future. With space heralded as ‘the province of all mankind’, our tiny island will indeed have a role to play as humanity tackles our final frontier.
Written by Sean Lim (https://ftloscience.com/author/sean)
Illustration by Jasreel Tan