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To infinity, and beyond: Singapore's adventures in spacetech
DR BIDUSHI BHATTACHARYA spent over two decades as a scientist and engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), where she worked on legendary space projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars Rover. But when she got to Singapore in 2013 to explore starting her own venture, what she found was an industry that was almost non-existent. Save for a handful of university professors, most people did not even seem to give space much thought. Dr Bhattacharya tells The Business Times: "Back then, if I said I was working on a space startup, people would ask me, ‘Is it retail space? Office space?
Residential space?' And I would say, ‘No, no, space," and point upwards. And they would look at me, confused." But just last year, Dr Bhattacharya was in a mall when she overheard a mother talking to her teenage son about exploring Mars. It was just a casual conversation, but it left an impression on her. "The public perception of space as a growing sector has definitely changed," she says. Today, Dr Bhattacharya runs a spacetech incubator called Astropreneurs Hub and a meet-up called Singapore Astropreneurs. From just 99 sign-ups for the first meeting in 2016, the meet-up now has about 650 people. Singapore's spacetech scene is an "everyone-knows-everyone" sector, and the country lacks a national space programme, but mounting interest over the years has seen various projects spring out of public institutions, startups and local enterprises. For instance, ST Engineering announced in February that it is setting up a joint venture firm with DSO National Laboratories to package data from satellite imagery for sectors such as construction, maritime safety and agriculture.
"The space industry in Singapore has made steady progress since we started the Office for Space and Technology Industry (OSTIn) in 2013," says Lim Tse Yong, director of Capital Goods at the Singapore Economic Development Board. "Today, there are over 30 companies in our space industry employing around 1,000 people."
Foreign spacetech firms that have set up shop in Singapore include Astroscale, a Japanese company developing ways to remove debris in space, and Planet, a US-based satellite imaging firm that operates the world's largest fleet of earth observation satellites.
Morgan Stanley valued the global space industry at US$350 billion in 2017 and predicted this figure will increase to US$1.1 trillion by 2040. Large companies such as Google and Alibaba have also ventured into space, while Elon Musk's SpaceX continues to fuel the imagination of everyday people.
The rise of spacetech comes on the back of the New Space revolution. Space ventures used to be billion-dollar blockbuster projects confined deep within the governmental sphere. But advances in manufacturing, dropping component costs and miniaturisation of electronics has led to the democratisation of the industry.
Up until the 2000s, it would take up to US$300 million to launch a communications satellite. Today, miniaturised satellites called CubeSats can be assembled using off-the-shelf technology within a few months and launched for US$300,000 to US$900,000. These CubeSats have a standard measurement of 10cm on each side and weigh only a few kilograms. "The newer satellites can sometimes work better than the old ones. Think of it this way. The computer processor in your phone is much cheaper, faster, and smaller than computers from the 1970s or 1980s," says Dr Bhattacharya.
With the private sector blooming, more research that previously stayed within certain industries is now being applied to spacetech. Local startup Aliena, a spin-off from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), started off when its founders were exploring how to apply plasma research to areas other than clean energy.
Now, the company is developing low-power plasma propulsion systems for satellites to perform advanced manoeuvres to change their orbit. Dabbling in spacetech might seem like a pipe dream, but it actually has many real-world applications that are experienced every day. The technology is used for weather forecasting, Global Positioning System (GPS), and communications, to name a few use cases.
"Spacetech is not something that you can only do in Russia or America. More Singaporeans are realising that they can do it too," says Lynette Tan, executive director of the Singapore Space and Technology Association. The organisation has spent more than a decade building the spacetech ecosystem through conferences, competitions, meet-ups and workshops. Still, the nascent industry has its fair share of challenges. Like many deep tech startups, spacetech startups can take years to commercialise their product.
"They also require deeper pockets of funding for talent, research, facilities, trials and more. Aside from the lack of technical expertise from investors to fully understand and assess the potential of the product, it is also a challenge trying to convince them of the enormous economic potential that the global space industry would have, since its impact is not immediately visible here in Singapore," says Steve Leonard, founding CEO of SGInnovate.
"One way spacetech startups can address these challenges would be to identify synergies between their technology priorities and those of the government. Singapore is keen to fund research and development in additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, which could be used to produce rocket parts and solid rocket fuel." Prof Low Kay Soon of the Satellite Technology and Research Centre at the National University of Singapore said that for Singapore to become a key player of the industry, it needs to invest more resources to develop more joint programmes between industry and universities.
With the spacetech sector on the rise, BT speaks to three startups that are paving the way for new frontiers.
Lasers in space for the Internet of the future
WHEN it comes down to it, the Internet is a maze of wires and cables spanning the globe. Every day, more than 95 per cent of the world's data is transmitted through thick fibre optic cables that sit at the bottom of the ocean.
These undersea cables are susceptible to shark attacks, disruption from boat anchors, and undersea earthquakes. That's not all. Cable installation is slow, tedious and very costly. Google's 9,000 kilometre cable from the US to Japan, which went live in 2016, cost US$300 million.
Local startup Transcelestial is making a case for delivering high-speed Internet through a laser network in space. The plan is to develop a constellation of 700 to 1,000 nanosatellites that use lasers to relay data all over the Earth. This means that data from one country could be beamed up to satellites, then transmitted down to its end point on the ground in another country.
Global data boom
"In the last two years, (humans) have generated more data than in all of human history combined," says Transcelestial co-founder and CEO Rohit Jha. He points out the impending global data boom. "But the problem is that our current connectivity networks are not up to the mark to actually be able to handle that."
Transcelestial is aiming to eventually deliver Internet connectivity at up to 100 gigabits per second (Gbps), hundreds of times faster than conventional speeds seen today. It wants to get its network up and running by 2025.
An important goal for the startup is to deliver that high-speed connectivity to the four billion people globally who lack proper Internet access. "A lot of that boils down to not having access to those big undersea cables," says Mr Jha, who grew up in India and did his undergraduate studies at NTU.
Laser communication in space has been in development for several years now but has not reached commercial viability. The thing to master is pointing a laser from a satellite down to a tiny receiver on the ground and continuing to track that link. Recent advancements in computation and photonics (the study of light) has made this possible, and this is what Transcelestial is working on. On the ground, the company has developed a device called Centauri that weighs less than 3kg and is mounted on a pole. The device transmits data using lasers (at up to 2 Gbps) to another device within a 3km range.
When Transcelestial was testing this technology, it stumbled upon a lucrative source of revenue. Companies like telcos were giving up US$50,000 to US$200,000 for every 1km of fibre optic cables they install in the ground, when they could just be paying Transcelestial a tenth of that cost to set up a link within 10 minutes.
Last year, it entered a joint project with South Korea's SK Telecom and the Telecom Infra Project's Ecosystem Acceleration Center (TEAC) Initiative to upgrade the backbone Internet connectivity of a major public library near Seoul.
As a result, bandwidth was improved by 20 times. Since August this year, Transcelestial has been manufacturing its device and shipping out pre-orders to customers, as well as embarking on more client projects.
The company was given a S$2.5 million vote of confidence in December 2017. The seed round was led by Singapore-based venture capital firm Wavemaker Partners, with Enterprise Singapore's Seeds Capital as co-investor. Other investors include 500 Startups, Australia's AirTree Ventures and Michael Seibel, CEO of renowned Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator. Transcelestial recently began raising funds for its Series A round.
Asked why the startup was building a space network when other major constellations - like OneWeb and SpaceX's Starlink - are in the works, Mr Jha argues that Transcelestial's core data transmission technology is different.
Over the moon
"We're using lasers and they're using traditional radio frequency or microwave old wireless technology. Wireless lasers can carry hundreds of gigabits to terabits per second of data, but the older wireless technology has reached a limit," he says.
If all goes to plan, by 2030, Transcelestial will even drop a 1 terabyte link down to the Moon. Mr Jha says: "There're more and more mining activities and lunar activities that are being planned... So our aim is to actually start offering things like 4G-services-equivalent on the moon itself, for all of these future missions."
Poised for the next phase of secure communications
SECURE communication is all the buzz these days, with demand stemming from government transmissions to consumer messaging.
Enter SpeQtral, a Singapore-based startup on a mission to make eavesdropping a thing of the past. The company is developing a satellite-based system for quantum key distribution.
Currently, messages are transmitted securely when the sender and receiver each have a "key" made up of a random string of numbers that can encrypt the message, and decrypt it. These keys are typically generated using complex mathematical algorithms.
For now, the private keys are extremely difficult to crack using conventional computers - in fact, it would take years to do so. But recent times have seen advances in quantum computers, which are more powerful and makes it possible to decipher the codes faster using something called Shor's algorithm. A quantum computer that would be able to crack a standard key has not yet been built, but the reality is not that far away, experts say.
SpeQtral's solution is to embed information on keys into single particles of light, called photons. Because this system is not based on any mathematical structure, it is not possible to work backwards to decrypt the keys, explains Lum Chune Yang, co-founder and CEO of SpeQtral.
The startup, which was spun off from Singapore's Centre for QuantumTechnologies (CQT), has licensed the core technology needed to develop a quantum light source, a device that emits light as single photons. The technology was developed at CQT under a research group led by Prof Alex Ling, the co-founder of and adviser to SpeQtral. It has been successfully demonstrated in space by the company, making SpeQtral one of the first and few groups to have done so.
But why the need for satellite-based quantum key distribution, instead of using optic fibres? "Quantum and light signals have losses in fibre, so the maximum you can achieve is 50-100 km," Mr Lum, who is Singaporean, says. "For any long-distance link such as those across countries, you'll need to use satellites."
A unique property of using quantum key distribution is the ability to detect eavesdropping. If someone wants to listen in on the conversation, they must first try to "read" each photon, introducing anomalies in the system that are detectable.
In April, SpeQtral announced seed funding of US$1.9 million. The oversubscribed round was led by Space Capital, the venture fund of American space investors Space Angels. Silicon Valley-based Shasta Ventures and local players Golden Gate Ventures and SGInnovate also participated.
It's easy to see why investors are paying attention. Potential customers for the technology include the government and defence sector, telecommunication operators, financial institutions, data centre operators and cloud providers.
At this stage of development, it's too early to put a dollar price on SpeQtral's technology, says Mr Lum. The company expects a proof-of-concept (POC) in two to three years' time in partnership with an anchor customer. It also plans to start another round of fundraising sometime in the fourth quarter to fund its activities till the POC stage.
Till then, the startup needs to gain a deeper understanding of how various systems interact in space, and work on increasing the power of its quantum light source so that more pairs of keys are generated per second.
SpeQtral also needs to secure something called an optical communication payload. This is essentially like a "telescope" that focuses the photons down into a very tight spot on earth so that they reach the ground station.
It might be a long and tough road ahead for the startup, but Mr Lum doesn't hold back when he talks about how exciting the venture is.
"I mean, we love space and we're a bunch of geeks. This is fun for us," he says. "For the team, it's meaningful just to see how far we can push the technology and how far we can go."
Fuelling a compulsion for propulsion
SIMON Gwozdz often jokes about how the tech startup he founded is dabbling in rocket science. But in all seriousness, it literally is.
Equatorial Space Industries (ESI) is a company that is developing rockets to send satellites into orbit. There's no better time to be working on this, considering that the market for satellites is on the cusp of an explosive growth cycle, says Mr Gwozdz, who heads up the firm as CEO.
More than 8,500 small satellites, or smallsats, are projected to be launched between 2019 and 2028, for a total market value of US$42 billion, according to French space consultancy Euroconsult. The firm also anticipates the five-year growth rate to peak at 48 per cent in 2024.
But here's the catch: there are only two ways that smallsats can be launched into space, and both are either inflexible or expensive.
The first option is called a rideshare, where a smallsat uses the spare capacity of a launch vehicle that already has a primary payload. The trouble with having a smallsat "piggyback" on a larger rocket, with a larger satellite, is that it doesn't offer the flexibility in launch schedule and orbital selection needed to deploy a constellation of satellites.
The second option is a dedicated launcher, many of which are currently being developed. But each launch could easily set a company back by at least US$6 million, according to Mr Gwozdz.
ESI is building an orbital launcher that aims to be cheaper and safer. The startup was incubated within the National University of Singapore from Nov 2017 to March 2019, when its founding members were still undergraduates (Mr Gwozdz was born in Poland and has been in Singapore since he was 15). Amid the hotly competitive space, the company believes it has found an answer in its hybrid launch system.
Currently, the two broad categories of rocket propulsion systems are liquid fuel engines and solid fuel ones. For liquid fuel engines, two substances (the oxidiser and propellant) in their liquid forms are delivered to the combustion chamber for ignition, where the magic happens.
Solid fuel systems are at the other end of the spectrum. "In a solid form, it's basically a giant firecracker," says Mr Gowzdz. It might be simple and cheap, but it's risky and does not offer much control over the launch process. ESI is working on hybrid propulsion, with a liquid oxidiser and solid fuel. "It means you only have to supply one substance into the combustion chamber, which dramatically reduces the complexity of the entire engine," says Mr Gwozdz. "It makes it cheaper and at the same time, you still have the same degree of control as a liquid fuel engine. You can throttle it, you can shut it down, and you can restart it depending on the emission profile."
The startup is hoping to price its launcher at US$3 million, with a payload capacity of 250-280kg .
The hybrid technology has not had much adoption because solid fuels do not burn quickly enough if the oxidiser is not embedded in it. But ESI believes it has found its secret sauce in a proprietary fuel developed by its new chief technical officer Jamie Anderson, a veteran rocket engineer.
Now, the startup is hoping to get into orbit by 2022. Ongoing discussions with interested parties put an estimated 300 satellite launches in the pipeline for the first few years.
Of course, one does not simply launch a rocket from anywhere. In Singapore, there is no such thing as a rocket engine test permit, says Mr Gwozdz. ESI is discussing its upcoming in-flight testing with partners in Thailand, though it is optimistic that there could be a rocket engine test facility in Singapore in the near future.
Asked about the hardest decision he has had to make, the young and animated founder grows quiet for a bit.
"Restructuring," he says. Just a few months ago, some of the founding team members who could not commit full-time had to leave the company - an unstable management was affecting the startup's investability. "At one point, your company really forces you to grow up," says Mr Gwozdz. ESI now has six full-time staff and 14 people helping out after-hours.
"What keeps me going is that it's not really just my dream anymore. It's a dream of everybody else," says Mr Gwozdz. On a recent trip to Thailand, he saw drawings on the wall of the space agency made by eight- and nine-year-olds picturing themselves in spacesuits, even though South-east Asia does not have the means to send people into space.
"If we are to open up this whole new universe of opportunities to our future generations, we have to get started now."