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Southeast Asia’s Space Race: The Untapped Potential of Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea

In the expanding panorama of Asia’s space sector, the limelight often falls upon the significant endeavours of Japan, China, and India, inadvertently sidelining the potential of other nations in the region. Recently, international media have highlighted Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea, which harbour plans to cultivate their space sectors through space tourism, novel satellite construction, and the development of new launch systems.

Amid the global interest riveted on the US-China space race, lesser-known Southeast Asian countries are quietly yet actively nurturing their respective space sectors. Thailand and Vietnam are particularly noteworthy due to their ambitions in satellite construction and space tourism. South Korea’s ambitious space plans have previously been detailed, while examples of cooperation with space-faring nations have been demonstrated by the Philippines.

The Thai government, after months of public deliberation, approved a national space programme for 2023-2037 in December last year. Thailand’s space sector predominantly revolves around the creation of new satellites for both civilian and military missions. The Napa-1 observation nanosatellite launched in 2020 and the RTAF-SAT 1 owned by the Royal Thai Air Force are among the notable defence-oriented satellites. In July 2021, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launched another military-use observation satellite, Napa-2, for the Thai Air Force.

Civilian satellites like THEOS-1, launched in 2008 for Earth observation, also form part of Thailand’s space portfolio. The country plans to launch another satellite of this type, THEOS-2, in 2023. Reports suggest that domestically developed and built satellites, as part of the Thai Space Consortium (TSC) project, are also on the anvil.

In terms of terrestrial infrastructure, Thailand commenced discussions in February with the Korean Space Research Institute regarding the construction of a launch pad for space vehicles. If budgetary and technological criteria are met, the facility could be operational within 7-10 years. The Thai government hopes that these space sector initiatives will boost its value to approximately $8.9bn by 2032.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has its sights set on a space port. ThaiHoldings plans to establish a vast tourist centre, including space tourism, on the island of Phu Quoc by 2026, with project costs estimated at $1.3bn.

South Korea continues to show vigour, with its 2023 budget allocation of $674m earmarked for domestic space industry development, the advancement of a new generation carrier rocket, and bolstering national security through space technologies. This represents a 19.5% increase from the previous year. The funds will be channelled into numerous innovative projects, including the creation of a new launch system to supersede the currently operated KSLV-2 or Nuri rocket.

However, Southeast Asian nations aren’t operating in isolation. Previous reports have pointed to collaborations with the US, China, and European countries in both civilian and military capacities. The knowledge transfer from these established space-faring nations can aid the development of local space markets, potentially creating attractive business partnerships in the future.

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