In the next few years, tiny ears and eyes in the sky, built and manned by Singapore engineers, could help to track ships and planes, and stop piracy and illegal fishing.
The satellites will collect weather and climate change data, and monitor the Earth's environment by, say, mapping changes in river courses and catching firms that are cutting down trees illegally.
Some of them will even help make Global Positioning Systems (GPS) more accurate, and test state-of-the-art encryption technology to keep communications secure.
A record six Singapore satellites are expected to launch from an island in India next year to do some of these tasks.
ST Electronics, ST Engineering's electronics arm, is launching one, the National University of Singapore (NUS) will put two into the sky, while Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will have three.
American firm Spire, which set up a Singapore office last month, will also have at least 20 nano-satellites in the air by next year to collect data.
The firm, which has raised US$25 million (S$31.7 million), plans to hire at least 100 people for the office here in the next five years. They will help to research and build hardware and software for the satellites, assemble and test them, and analyse the data collected. "Our goal is to build dozens of satellites out of the Singapore office," Spire chief executive Peter Platzer told The Sunday Times last week.
The developments are a shot in the arm for Singapore's space ambitions, which were set out last year when the Government opened the Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTin) under the Economic Development Board (EDB).
OSTin's mission is to plan and execute economic strategies to grow Singapore's space industry.
The US-based, non-profit research organisation Space Foundation said the global space economy grew 27 per cent from 2008 to US$314 billion last year, and the Asian satellite industry is poised for a bigger piece of the pie, OSTin believes.
Nearly 200 satellites were launched globally last year, about two-thirds more than in 2012.
Micro-satellites - which weigh less than 200 pounds, or 91kg - made up more than half of the launches last year, the foundation said.
Experts here say that the space industry - and small-satellites field, in particular - are a natural fit for land-scarce and talent-focused Singapore, especially at this time when it is trying to move its economy into high-value industries.
Indeed, Mr Platzer said he set up shop here as "building nano-satellites and running data analytics - which are driven by software in the cloud and rely on brain power - is as typical of Singapore Inc as you can get".
NUS' Dr Goh Cher Hiang, who is chairing Singapore's first space symposium on Wednesday, added: "The domain of space is 'free', and the industry is one based on knowledge and high-tech skills."
The university's two satellites to be launched next year will study the Earth's features, collect data to improve navigation systems and test an advanced quantum communications concept created by the NUS Centre for Quantum Technologies.
Nano-satellites - weighing 1kg to 10kg - are easier, cheaper and faster to build, taking one to two years compared to at least three years for larger spacecraft, said Dr Goh, who is a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at DSO National Laboratories, seconded to NUS' Electrical and Computer Engineering Department as an adjunct professor.
The speed enables firms to gather and sell data more quickly to recoup their investment costs.
Associate Professor Low Kay Soon, director of NTU's Satellite Research Centre, said that small satellites can be used to test new ideas and components at a relatively lower cost, before these are scaled up for larger spacecraft.
NTU already has four satellites in orbit, ranging in weight from 193g to 105kg. Its new technologies tested on them include an inter-satellite communication system and "sun sensors" that allow a solar panel to re-orient itself to capture more sunlight.
Its three satellites to be deployed next year will include Singapore's first EDB-funded weather satellite, which will be used for tropical climate studies.
Prof Low said that the multi-disciplinary research and work that go into such innovations and satellites could boost a wide range of industries here.
But the experts noted that several obstacles need to be overcome, starting with the paucity of trained manpower here.
Prof Low said students have to be able to design and test products to withstand extreme vibrations as well as changes in space temperature, which can range from minus 60 deg C to more than 100 deg C.
"You don't need to do this for products on Earth. The closest equivalent we have for such testing is the automotive industry," he said.
NTU does not have a dedicated course for satellites, but Prof Low's centre accepts about 50 students each year, mostly from engineering disciplines, to work on satellites for their third- and final-year projects.
NUS has an undergraduate engineering track for students focused on satellite design. It also offers a 41/2-day course on space systems basics for the local industry.
"It is a chicken or egg problem," said Prof Low.
"Without manpower, firms may not want to come here. Without firms, students may not want to study the subject due to the low job prospects."
He added that a dedicated government space agency is needed to represent Singapore, for instance, when firms or institutes here register satellites for launches in other countries. "I had a lot of trouble in the past when I applied for permits," he said.
Singapore Space and Technology Association president Jonathan Hung said more international and regional partnerships with foreign space agencies and established commercial players would help fuel Singapore's space industry growth in the near future.
"Singapore is progressing well with a focus on small-satellite developments," he said.
Still, "while nano-satellites have inherent advantages, there are limitations such as the trade-off of payload capacity or imagery resolution".
NUS' Dr Goh added that leadership will be critical to boost the field here.
"For larger space systems, the risk of failure is very high. Simple mistakes by anyone in the project can cause problems, the worst-case scenario being a complete failure," he said.
"Leadership, coupled with technical and programmatic skills, is crucial to the success of a space programme."
This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
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