Two new S'pore-built satellites take off

Two new S'pore-built satellites take off
Associate Professor Low Kay Soon (left), director of NTU's Satellite Research Centre, with his students (from right) Xing Yitong, Soon Jing Jun, Lau Zi Rui and Htet Aung. NTU is also set to build Singapore's first weather satellite, funded by the Economic Development Board.

SINGAPORE- Singapore has a new eye in the sky. On Monday, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) launched two locally built satellites, which will monitor the haze and other environmental conditions as well as stress-test sensors for their sturdiness in space.

The new additions mean that at least four made-in-Singapore models are orbiting Earth.

"Satellites involve a lot of precision engineering. If one component fails, you cannot call it back and fix it," said Nanyang Technological University's Associate Professor Low Kay Soon.

"To have one satellite in space is an achievement, but to have all four working, even more so."

Singapore's newest satellites, Velox-I and Velox-PIII, were launched at 12.21pm on Monday on a rocket from India and are now soaring 650km from Earth.

Designed and built by students and researchers at the NTU Satellite Research Centre, Velox-I is a nanosatellite weighing 4.28kg. The even tinier, iPhone-size Velox-PIII currently piggy-backs the bigger model, but will separate and start its own journey in about two months.

Such small satellites are cheaper to make and easier to launch, but are unable to carry high-resolution cameras such as those in bigger models, which can weigh more than 100kg.

While in space, Velox-I will test a new camera chip built by the NTU students. With the help of a lens that pops out of the satellite, the camera can detect objects 30m in size or larger. Velox-PIII does not carry a camera.

The new satellites also carry sensors that will be tested in space's harsh conditions.

"If they can withstand space, they can be used to build commercial satellites in future," said Prof Low, lead researcher for the project. He is also director of the research centre.

Scientists also want to test if the two satellites can "talk" to each other after separating. Such "inter-satellite communication" can help several satellites better synchronise, to take pictures of an object from different angles.

NTU's first satellite - X-SAT - launched in 2011, was a joint project with the DSO National Laboratories. Still going strong, the 105kg satellite has travelled more than 700 million km and taken over 8,000 pictures, including images of Singapore's haze and Indonesia's volcanic eruptions. The second, a 10cm cube-shaped satellite, is used for testing sensors.

Building satellites trains manpower and will help the country dip into the lucrative space industry worth US$177 billion (S$220.7 billion) in 2012.

The core team behind X-SAT, for example, will also create TeLEOS-1 which will be able to detect objects on Earth as small as 1m, the standard for commercial satellites. It will be launched by the end of next year, and could sell satellite imagery to environmental or disaster relief agencies, said ST Electronics, the firm building it.

Singapore is one of the few countries in South-east Asia to have built their own satellites. Asian heavyweight Japan has built over 300 and South Korea at least 30, said Prof Low.

More local models will follow.

The National University of Singapore plans to launch two satellites next year to monitor environmental changes and conduct science experiments in space.

NTU will also build Singapore's first weather satellite. Funded by the Economic Development Board (EDB), it will record data on temperature, humidity and pressure from equatorial regions, which could help researchers better understand long-term climate change and weather phenomena. To give space efforts a push, the EDB established the Office for Space Technology and Industry last year.

More satellites mean more late nights spent monitoring them when they are first launched.

Said Mr Xing Yitong, 29, a master's graduate from NTU's electronics engineering faculty: "It's tiring, but when you know your satellite is in orbit, it's like seeing your baby walk."

This article was first published on July 4, 2014.
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