Southeast Asia’s space race chases wins in tourism, communications

Thailand plans smart-farming as Vietnam eyes tourist spaceport

A SpaceX rocket carrying Starlink internet satellites launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Philippines has tapped the Starlink internet service to provide internet connections to residents on remote islands.   © Getty Images

BANGKOK/LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia — A new space race is heating up in Southeast Asia, with Thailand and Vietnam pursuing business opportunities in communications satellites and space tourism.

Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) plans to launch an industrial satellite from India in August that it jointly developed with the U.K. The project marks the first time Thailand has played a central role in the development of a satellite.

Going forward, the country aims to design and manufacture satellites domestically, and plans to launch two or three home-made or jointly developed satellites within the next five years.

Operating domestically developed satellites gives countries more freedom to collect and use data. Thailand’s plan is expected to play a significant role in the development of smart farming and self-driving technology.

The country is also considering constructing its own launch site, beginning discussions in February with South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute to select a candidate site in the country’s northeastern or southern regions.

An industrial satellite jointly developed by Thailand and the U.K. (Photo acquired by Nikkei)

If budgetary and technological conditions are met, a facility could be built in seven to 10 years’ time, according to GISTDA Executive Director Pakorn Apaphant.

The Thai government expects the domestic space-related market to grow to 300 billion baht (about $8.9 billion) by 2032, a figure that would make it one of the country’s leading industries.

“Thailand, with its well-developed logistics network, will become a hub for the Southeast Asian space industry,” Pakorn said.

Thailand is not the only country with space ambitions. Vietnamese materials and real estate conglomerate ThaiHoldings has a board-approved plan to build a tourist spaceport by 2026, with plans to invest 30 trillion dong (about $1.3 billion), according to local media.

The facility is to be built on the southern resort island of Phu Quoc, with the goal of a first launch by 2030. ThaiHoldings is developing a large-scale resort on the island, seeking to transform it into a tourism hub, including space tourism.

Thailand and Vietnam are both eyeing opportunities to steal space-oriented customers from the U.S. and China, which dominate the satellite launch market.

The Southeast Asian countries posses certain geographical advantages due to their location near the equator, which reduces the energy — and thereby the cost — needed for a launch.

Satellite communication services are also expanding in Southeast Asia. In February, Philippine authorities announced the launch of Starlink internet services from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the company’s first foray into Southeast Asia.

With its 7,600 islands, the country is a prime customer for satellite-provided internet, a far more viable option than laying undersea cables.

Philippine telecommunications giant Globe Telecom successfully tested sending and receiving text messages in February using low-orbit satellites, which allow for higher-speed and lower-latency communications than geosynchronous satellites.

The company hopes to improve communications in remote mountainous areas, especially for disaster relief purposes.

Extreme weather is also a factor in the growing interest in the satellite business. Southeast Asia has experienced firsthand the effects of climate change through frequent large-scale floods and droughts. Satellite-based weather monitoring systems could assist in mitigating the consequences of such events.

In order for Southeast Asian countries to develop their space industrial sectors, cooperation with countries like the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, which hold the necessary know-how, may prove essential.

Efforts by the U.S. and China to exert their influence in the Asia-Pacific region also include those in the space domain.

In March, the U.S. for the first time conducted an exercise responding to a simulated space attack during the Cobra Gold multilateral military exercises in Thailand. Japan and Malaysia also participated in the exercise to mount a response in the event of attacks on satellites.

As for China, the country heads the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), whose member nations include Thailand and Pakistan. In April, the group confirmed its intent to work together on the China-led International Lunar Research Station project, a plan to build a scientific research base on the moon.

Thailand is also considering the use of space technology for defense purposes. “Countries may compete to offer cooperation as they seek to expand influence,” said a military expert.

Thailand is moving to curb such foreign influence, and is considering legislation that would ban production bases for foreign military satellites or related equipment in the country, according to military experts.

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