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The 'final frontier' is now the next place of business

Startups find new opportunities for trade and innovation in space

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Japan's experimental miniature SS-520 rocket launch ends in failure on Jan. 15.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- It was a sunny January morning at the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, the perfect day for a launch.

"3... 2... 1... 0."

The countdown ended, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's SS-520 mini-rocket blasted off into the blue sky. Everything seemed to go off without a hitch. But after a few moments, ground control stopped receiving data from the rocket. JAXA, as the space agency is known, decided to abort the second-stage ignition. It was Japan's first failure to launch a rocket carrying a satellite into space since 2003.

Despite this setback, Japan is still a powerhouse when it comes to satellite manufacturing and rocket launching. The nation's first milestone in space exploration and development came in 1955 with the launch of the tiny "pencil rocket," and in 1970, Japan became only the fourth country in the world to launch a satellite. It is also the only Asian country to be part of the International Space Station program.

Japan's wealth of experience means that other Asian countries look to it for help with their own space programs. For instance, Vietnam's first fully functional, domestically built satellite, the Pico Dragon, was developed by the Vietnam National Satellite Center with help from Tokyo University and Japanese company IHI Aerospace, and backing from JAXA.

Philippine microsatellite DIWATA-1, released into space from Japan's Kibo module on the ISS last April, is the first satellite built under a Hokkaido University and Tohoku University project aimed at sending 50 microsatellites into space by 2020. Nine engineers from the Philippines, which is in the process of setting up its own space agency, collaborated with scientists and engineers from the two Japanese universities in the production process.

Appetite for satellites

"A paradigm shift is happening in the field of space utilization," according to Shuzo Takada, director-general of Japan's National Space Policy Secretariat. Drastic reductions in the cost of manufacturing satellites and launching rockets have transformed the way governments think about space development. Launching rockets and owning satellites are not so much about kindling national pride anymore. Instead, the focus has shifted more to the practical uses of data gathered from space. "We shouldn't focus only on the traditional hardware aspect, like rockets and satellites. We should also look at the services and software that are connected," Takada added. "Activities related to space will change dynamically. Even countries that are deemed to be behind technology-wise have a chance of becoming front-runners."

If that is the case, many of tomorrow's trailblazers will likely be found in Southeast Asia, where countries are rapidly catching up in the space development race.

A driving factor is their great need for satellites and satellite data. In a region plagued by natural disasters, satellites can be invaluable tools for monitoring earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other events. In 2015, Thailand approved the launch of its second Earth observation satellite, THEOS-2, in part for this purpose.

And for some island nations, it makes more economic sense to build communication infrastructure up in space rather than lay physical cables on the ground. A case in point: Indonesia, a nation made up of thousands of islands, plans to start production of its own domestically assembled communications satellite in 2018, according to the Jakarta Globe. There are reportedly plans to sell it to other nations, too.

Satellite data can also be used for agriculture, a vital industry in Southeast Asia. ASEAN's Sustainable Agrifood Systems, tasked with coordinating policies and strategies for food security, currently runs a program called RIICE that "supports partner countries in satellite-based rice crop monitoring to make reliable forecasts of their country's rice production." Governments can also use the data to assess the impact of natural disasters and the extent of damage to rice crops, according to the group.

Getting innovative

Space exploration can lead to some unexpected problems, and it often takes a measure of creativity to solve them. The Malaysian space agency Angkasa, for example, brought together 150 clerics and scientists to come up with guidelines for how a Muslim astronaut would worship while stationed on the ISS.

To keep the innovations and advancements rolling, it helps to have frameworks in place to spur cooperation among countries. One example is the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, a regional gathering of space agencies, governmental bodies, organizations and the like. Established over two decades ago, APRSAF attracted 576 participants from 33 countries and regions, and 10 international organizations at its most recent gathering, in Manila.

"It's a place for presenting and discussing experiences," explained Akiko Suzuki, deputy director of JAXA's international relations and research department. "Participants can look at those presentations and know which institutions have what kind of know-how, and can approach them [for cooperation]."

A person familiar with APRSAF said the gathering has evolved into a place where all participants discuss their issues, whereas it used to be only JAXA making presentations.

One of the projects to come out of APRSAF is "Sentinel Asia," which aims to promote international cooperation in monitoring natural disasters in the region using the satellites of member nations. The project has been used on numerous occasions, including the 2009 eruption of the Mayon in the Philippines, the 2011 floods in Thailand and the March 2011 earthquake in Japan.

Private players

The global space industry was worth $335.3 billion in 2015, an increase of 21% over five years. And with the "paradigm shift" described by the space secretariat's Takada, private companies are also seeing chances to innovate and capture the fast-growing market.

"In the field of earth observation, I think the Japanese startup Axelspace is way ahead of the pack," said Hidetaka Aoki, partner at the venture capital firm Global Brain and a self-proclaimed space business evangelist. Global Brain is an investor in Axelspace, which specializes in designing and developing microsatellites and providing the data they gather. The startup has also received funding from Japanese trading houses Itochu and Mitsui & Co.

"It makes sense for the trading companies to invest in Axelspace," Aoki said. "Government statistics are usually a few months late. Satellite data is more real-time, and with proper analysis, they can make a move before their rivals."

Two other companies looking to make use of communication satellites have also attracted global attention. Singapore-based startup Kacific plans to launch satellites to provide high-speed internet to the remote communities of the Pacific islands, Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, while Bank Rakyat Indonesia operates a satellite to handle its 50 million accounts, a first among financial institutions.

Meanwhile Singapore-based Japanese startup Astroscale has the problem of space debris covered. Its prototype spacecraft, slated for launch in the first half of 2018, has a special adhesive to capture unused microsatellites. The craft will then re-enter -- and burn up in -- the atmosphere, taking the space junk with it.

Each episode of the old "Star Trek" show began with the words, "Space: the final frontier." When the series was originally broadcast in the U.S. in the 1960s, space was indeed the final frontier. But, as Asian nations and companies are proving, space is no longer a frontier; it is a place to do business and to enrich people's lives.

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