Getting Malaysia’s First LEO Satellite into Orbit
By Ong Siou WoonSeptember 2022 PENANG PROFILE
THOUSANDS OF SATELLITES now orbit Earth – the first, Sputnik 1, was launched in 1957. Tens of thousands more are expected to begin orbiting in the coming years. According to the 12th Malaysia Plan, Malaysia considers its aerospace industry to be the key to hastening the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Ong Siou Woon, Chief Operating Officer of Penang Institute, spoke to Dato’ Dr. Sean Seah, Co-founder of Angkasa-X, a company investing in low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, on how Malaysia can progress in this area.
OSW: According to your website, Angkasa-X is a “technology-social inclusion” company. What does this mean?
DSS: We created the term “technology-social inclusion” to denote that we aim to use the most advanced satellite technology to achieve social inclusion. We believe that satellite and space technology will improve the quality of life of those living in rural areas. Governments may want to develop rural parts but lack the means to orchestrate it. We know that the only way to improve the standard of living is through connectivity. By providing easier access to education or e-commerce using satellite technology, we can connect locations where the current hard-core cables have failed.
OSW: Can you explain how the current conventional connectivity method differs from your proposed technology?
DSS: The conventional connectivity method uses a series of cables connected to a data centre and transmission tower. If a telco service provider applies this in Sarawak, it would cost them billions of ringgit, for example, to pull the cable to an area located 1,000km away from Kuching. After which, you will have to ask, can these people located 1,000km away afford to pay this telco for their service? Who would invest billions in cables and telco towers without guaranteed business return?
On the other hand, the LEO satellite moves at about 36,000km/hour, orbiting the earth approximately 12 times a day. The ground station connects to the satellite for 10 to 12 minutes each time the satellite passes and will tunnel through local internet connectivity. Since our technology uses satellite transmission, we will only need a portable 40-feet container that acts as both a local and mobile data centre, with end-user devices connected to the container within the service radius. For this to really work, we need to coordinate closely with the government and telco companies because Angkasa-X is only a Satellite-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider. We plan to supply such a service not only to rural areas in Malaysia but to other countries as well, as the satellite orbits the earth. We intend to move in to act as an SaaS provider wherever portable local stations are within the satellite's connectivity path.
OSW: Your business footprint in Penang is very significant. Why did you choose Penang?
DSS: What we are looking for is based on five criteria. As an SaaS company, we need a research institute to collaborate with Angkasa-X for aerospace research. We understand that USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) is the top in the country on this front. Then, we look for expertise. Has Malaysia designed and launched a satellite before? Of course – with Razaksat in 2009! Unfortunately, many engineers involved in Razaksat have left the country due to a lack of job opportunities. By partnering with USM, we can get these engineers back.
Third, we need a developed ecosystem to provide high-quality and affordable components for our trials and tests. Penang’s E&E (electrical and electronics) sector is well renowned for its robust ecosystem.
Fourth, we ask ourselves if we can obtain space-ready or space-worthy components that can endure extreme temperatures and radiation. We find that the current Penang E&E players are well-equipped with the capability and capacity to test under such conditions.
Finally, we want to work with a stable government that consistently aims to develop new local ecosystems. So far, none of the 11 ASEAN countries we explored has planned for something like what Angkasa-X is trying to do. Penang’s government, however, is very supportive. Penang meets all five criteria – research, talent, material supply, testing facilities and a supportive government. Hence, Penang is an ideal place for us.
OSW: What will the government’s role be? Are you receiving support from MySA (Malaysia Space Agency)?
DSS: There is currently no support from the government for my business at all. I believe we need to consider market needs. Everyone is talking about 4G, 5G, Jendela, MyDigital and 100% connectivity. Our question is, how can we achieve the 100%? The government will try to regulate the telcos, but what about investing in space technology development? Actually, Malaysia started early, but the government stopped and placed their bets on 5G and Jendela for 4G. Billions were spent with the 5G and Jendela currently ongoing, but as predicted, some territories will still be left disconnected.
With regards to your question though, I feel that participation by the government through regulation of the industry does not necessarily mean that it will help the industry. If done too early, it may backfire on the industry.
OSW: That is a difficult position to be in. Among ASEAN countries, Malaysia only has four satellites, while Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand have 11, eight and seven, respectively. What inspired you to step into the satellite industry when Malaysia is so far behind compared to its neighbours?
DSS: We need to look into the future. Today, Malaysia needs satellites, but we don’t have them. The four we had were purely for communications purposes – GEO (geosynchronous equatorial orbit) satellites with limited functions. The internet, e-commerce, e-learning, autonomous car navigation system, weather forecast and GPS rely on LEO satellites. Once you have a LEO satellite in orbit, it is yours for the next 15 to 20 years. If you do not apply for an orbit now, someone will take it, and you will not have orbits at all. A decade down the road, you may want to use your satellite, but you will have to rent the orbit from Korea or Singapore. Orbits are like highways. If it is owned by others, you will need to pay the toll.
I believe we are already late to the game. We have zero LEO satellites. If you think zero is bad, it is even worse if you are not planning to break the zero. US companies have filed for 50,000 orbit allotments, but none have come from Southeast Asia. Angkasa-X is filing for our first orbit for Malaysia from ITU (International Telecommunication Union), under the condition that we launch our satellite. That is why we are working together with USM to achieve this.
OSW: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today. I wish you all the best in getting Malaysia’s first orbit for the LEO satellite.
Ong Siou Woon
is the Chief Operating Officer of Penang Institute. This YSEALI alumnus was trained in urban planning and she finds learning about nature and food a never-ending journey.