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Space Development In Malaysia

Dr Noordin Ahmad
Dr Noordin Ahmad
Director General, Malaysia Space Agency


Dr Noordin, Director General of Malaysia Space Agency, shared some interesting insights on space industry development in Malaysia and the significants of this industry in gearing up the economic growth, social development and national security.

What are the missions and objectives are the Malaysian Space Agency? What according to you are the high points?

Our mission is to enable space technology and space sciences being utilized by Malaysia in order to help various aspects like economy, sovereignty and foreign policies. It’s been 10 years since the agency has been established. It started on a very strong ambition. It was initially in the office of the Prime Minister. Within a short span of time, we had to level with the world so that we weren’t left behind, we had to grow accordingly. We have our own set of engineers who have the knowledge of developing satellites. Also able to cooperate and operate on international systems, as well as bringing the understanding of space technologies and sciences to schools. We have activities for the coming generation- we have National Space Challenge, we organise quizzes and camps for the children to understand all aspects of space.

For lower secondary classes, we walk them through designs. Then we are moving to universities where we have microgravity experiments. And the objective of Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) is to make science interesting targeting 60% of the students to be in the science stream. To be a developed nation, you need to have more students in the science stream.

How is Malaysia using space technology for growth and development? How is the mission of your department different from the Astronautics Technology Sdn Bhd?

For growth and developments, we now have a few programmes. For microgravity program there are several areas to this experiment, there’s agriculture, medical and more. The second area is to help in management and decision making, mainly remote sensing. We have done surveys and we find that more agencies require remote sensing data for their operations in terms of management and decision making, doing operations on infrastructure, agriculture as well as security and military operations. On other area of satellite applications, we have noticed that the need for national telecommunication satellites are emerging these days.

Currently we have three arms in the Malaysian government that deals with space technology. We have National Space agency (ANGKASA), we have Remote Sensing Agency (ARSM) and we have Astronautics Technology Sdn Bhd (ATSB) which is a government linked company. We’re doing the strategic planning and basically putting in efforts to reach a certain level of achievement in the space sector. So we do planning in various fields like space sciences, GNSS, telecommunications and remote sensing. Currently ANGKASA don’t build satellites. Management, policies and planning are our main role, but the building of satellites is mandated to someone else’s, someone who has the resources and expertise to build a satellite.

Launching of satellites happens abroad, because it’s not an easy thing to do and generally takes 20-30 years of experience, if you see countries like India, China and Korea, although Korea is still getting the hang of it. Launching also has a lot to do with military aspects and that’s not our priority at the moment. We don’t intend to have our launching capabilities yet. In terms of utilisation and application, we’re cooperating with a lot of countries like Japan, European, Korea and even India.

Tell us more about South Asian Cooperation. How does it work out? And what is Malaysia’s remote sensing capabilities?

The cooperation started mainly because of the realisation that we are really dense in terms of ground stations, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore all has one. We are quite close to one another and can share ground stations. And ground stations aren’t as expensive as satellites; however we can’t share ground stations due to security reasons. But we can share satellites data, so we are looking at that kind of cooperation. We have the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, it’s basically voluntary organisations. It’s attended by a lot of people from the Asian region, usually about 400. Through this forum, we come to understand that we have common issues, and there’s no point suffering together. So our mission is to see how we can cooperate.

The sharing of technology and data is mainly done through government to government platform. In the past years, the ASEAN + 3 cooperation has been highlighted in the space sector. If you’re looking for remote sensing capabilities, we don’t have any satellite. Currently we are receiving data from all the foreign satellites and our partners as well. But in terms of remote sensing processing and analysing, I would say we’re quite alright. In terms of resources, most agencies have a GIS and remote sensing department or units, which mean they have the resources. We don’t do a lot of commercial work; we’re more into government agencies. We also want to have more business based on satellites, we don’t want to compete with different companies like the remote sensing companies and we want to nurture them instead. We provide satellite images to them. Our mission is to help these companies develop, for economic purposes.

Tell us about RazakSAT

The previous RazakSAT was initiated by ATSB as a part of their research and human capital development. After they had gone through the stage of developing the microsatellite, they trained themselves through SSTL from UK and gained the confidence to have bigger satellites. Then they found themselves some government funding and worked with the Koreans to build capacities. And this is how the satellite was successfully built and successfully launched. But the launched was delayed as it wasn’t easy to find a launcher and each of them is normally booked few years in advance. We were lucky that we were the first clients of SpaceX and we were able to launch the satellite. It works fine in the beginning, but going through the equator is not an easy path, because scientists say that there’s a lot of radiation, so we can learn a lesson from it. We do need some fine tuning in terms of getting better images, and not taking the risk of letting it near the equatorial orbit unless we do a comprehensive study of what the issue is there. But on the satellite part, we’re building it again.

This time, we’re going to go with SSO orbit. And from there we’ll also learn new things, because when you go to the polar orbit you’re going to learn new things cause your satellite will be utilised by other countries, they’ll be interested in images from the satellite too. RazakSAT 2 shall have 1m resolution, 5 bands, 4 multispectral and 1 panchromatic. We’re finalising the budget and deciding which partner we can work with. We’re looking at the lunch in 2016. The world is shifting from bigger satellites to micro and nano.

Moving to the broader Earth Observation market, having the right imagery at the right time is the first step. And the trend is moving towards analytics. What kind of services are you offering? What is your policy on satellite imagery?

We have a data policy for our own satellites. We will provide it free of charge for all the education sectors, for the disasters, for the infrastructure planning and development, and for security of course. We think data should be provided free of charge for the development of the country. But for others, there are value added services, so there should be a particular amount that should be covering the cost of processing the images. And this includes the private sector, they can have the data with certain amount of charge. Currently, the main issue that we have is that applicants need to be vetted. You have to fill the form stating what the purpose of it so that you can save the data from going into the wrong hands.

How do you see the Earth Observation market shaping up globally? The trend is that, number of satellites is going up and more users are demanding it. How do you see it? It’s because users are demanding it or because of the availability of data that’s why people are demanding it?

People want more data, and people want timely data so I expect it to grow into a huge market. And that’s why almost every country besides having a ground station is planning to build its own satellite. Previously weather was depending on ground equipments and tools. But NOAA is going for MODIS, people want more and more analysis because people want real time information and only satellites can provide them with real time formation and imagery. Even fishery, people need to know where the fishes are available, they need that information everyday and they need more and more information, the demand is increasing every day.

At National Space Agency we have to promote the use of satellite imagery otherwise people won’t know that it can be utilised for various purposes. We’re trying to show university students that this is the science of the technology behind it and from there they start to grow their interest. Utilisation of satellite increases because of the understanding. And from there it creates demands. For example, people in Australia, farmers, are looking at how to manage their farms well. With knowledge the demand is increasing. And now that the demand is increasing it is our duty to provide more data.

In terms of resolution, if we talk on a global trend, there’s a global consensus building now that the restrictions have to go. What are your views on this?

One reason why every country is sensitive about resolution is because we are worried about the misuse of it. Nobody denies the importance of having high resolution images but they’re only worried about the misuse of it. Now they’re weighing the pros and cons. It’s the same as Internet going public, so initially people are thinking about the good that it’ll do but now with all the cyber crime going on there’s so many security threats and issues. The same thing goes for space and the government as to weigh everything part by part. So we agree with the reason as to why we have to limit certain things but at the same time it is free for certain things.