While Thailand draws people from all over the world to experience its intricate temples, dazzling beaches, and mouthwatering food, few may realize that this country also hosts its own space agency. Nearly 75 miles southeast of the bustling metropolis of Bangkok, amid the industrial setting of the Chonburi district, one can find a place of collaborative efforts, inspirational exhibits, and innovative operations…all while delivering value from space. That place is the Space Krenovation Park, run by Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA). And here in the heart of Southeast Asia, two former NASA engineers were about to get an inside look.
If a Thai space agency sounds new to you, that’s because Thailand’s entry into the world of space exploration is relatively recent. Established in 2000, GISTDA began work on the country’s first satellite in 2004 and saw it soar into space just 4 years later. Sitting at just over 700 kg (or about 1500 lb), the Thaichote or Thailand Earth Observation Satellite (THEOS) is still in operation – beaming down valuable Earth observation data (geo-informatics) to one of the large white satellite dishes that dot GISTDA’s Space Krenovation Park. That data comes at a benefit to not only Thailand, but to all of Southeast Asia through GISTDA’s collaboration.
Collaboration at GISTDA
We met our host for the visit, Kawin Liampisan, at the steps of a gleaming new building on the Park’s grounds. “The word ‘Krenovation’ was coined by our chairman,” Kawin shared as we made our way inside, “it is intended as a blend of the words ‘knowledge,’ ‘creativity,’ and ‘innovation’.” Those very words seemed fitting as we toured the building’s collaboration space – meant to bring together entrepreneurs and aerospace industry experts. We explored offices, small laboratories, and workspaces with 3D-printing capabilities that were built to facilitate the development of Thailand’s aerospace manufacturing industry. Kawin shared how incentives, services, and privileges are being made available to help support new startups and Small Medium Enterprises (SME’s) that hope to enter the geo-informatics or space industry. As these new entrants come to GISTDA’s Space Krenovation Park, they will also be co-located with established aerospace industry leaders.
While GISTDA is building collaborative opportunities for the future, it is also actively leading collaboration across Southeast Asia. Singapore, Vietnam, Korea and Thailand have all launched satellites. Many of these satellites are tasked with Earth observation and provide valuable insight into land use and disaster response. But with a currently limited number of resources and high demand, a solution is needed to maximize the returned value of these space-based assets. To shed some light on how GISTDA is helping to solve this problem, Kawin introduced us to Dr. Supatcha Chaimatanan. Supatcha is an aerospace engineer that is helping to ease the challenges of satellite scheduling. With her colleague, Wasanchai Vongsantivanich, she’s developing and testing new tools that will enable collaborative planning across Southeast Asia’s spacefaring community. To understand the scope of her work, however, may require a brief primer in satellite operations.
Scheduling time for an Earth observation satellite is a three-step process. First, a user will put in a request for data of a specific geographic location. The next step is to identify when the satellite will be available to collect the requested data. Lastly, commands will be sent, data will be collected, and the results beamed back to Earth. While that seems simple, there are many other factors that are involved and thus why it is called ‘rocket science.’ Availability of antenna dishes, limited capabilities of transmitters and receivers on the satellite, maintenance of ground systems, heating and power constraints on the satellite, competing requests for data from different users, and even local weather are just a handful of the factors that come into play. Add to this the fact that you’re working with a craft that is hundreds of miles above you traveling at about 5 miles per second. Once one successfully wades through all these considerations, the result is called a ‘pass plan’ and essentially becomes the satellite’s personal schedule with events timed to the second or less.
Now imagine data requests coming from all over Southeast Asia. Add to the mix a handful of satellites owned by different countries. Pretty soon you can recognize how satellite scheduling is a complicated ballet that requires close collaboration and robust automation. Over time, the capability that Mr. Vongsantivanich and Dr. Chaimatanan are putting together will benefit Thailand and also enable seamless collaboration across Southeast Asia.
Inspiration at GISTDA
People best collaborate when inspired. And there’s no better time to start inspiring future aerospace leaders than when they begin charting their academic future. In addition to our discussion with Supatcha, Kawin introduced us to a smiling young woman, “I want you to meet a talented high school student that we recently hosted for career week.” We shook hands with Pear Sukarom as she sat across from us and shared her plans to study engineering and play a role in space exploration. We shared with her what it was like working as an engineer, discussed good schools for aerospace, and even exchanged thoughts on the future of Mars exploration. As much as our meeting Pear was inspirational to her, it also inspired us. Our past experiences and hopes for the future may help inspire others if we just put forth the effort to share. That opportunity came to us at GISTDA sooner than we might have imagined.
As we concluded our time with Pear, Kawin presented the opportunity. “Today we have a group of young students from across Bangkok visiting GISTDA. Would you be able to share a bit about NASA’s work?” We enthusiastically accepted. Our visit happened to be the same day that two of our former colleagues would conduct a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. What better opportunity for Jayleen to share about NASA’s space suit and how one gets ready for a spacewalk? After all, she spent nearly five years working with NASA’s space suit. With Kawin serving as a translator, Jayleen fielded questions and went through the steps of preparing for a spacewalk. Smiles, laughs, and engaged nods told us that the excitement of space exploration inspires despite a language barrier.
While honored to have had our opportunity to inspire the next generation of explorers, GISTDA strives to make such inspiration always accessible. Both a public museum and visitor’s center, GISTDA’s Space Inspirium is set to educate and inspire the Thai community on all things space. Exhibits stretch across two floors and provide an overview of space exploration while highlighting its value to Thailand. We wandered the floors with Kawin taking in the models, interactive Mars room, and seeing examples of THEOS imagery. One could easily spend hours amid the exhibits. Having spent nearly 28 years of combined service with NASA, you’d think we would have gotten bored. You’d be wrong. Eventually Kawin had to pull us away from Space Inspirium so we could see how GISTDA is not only collaborating and inspiring, but also innovating.
Innovation at GISTDA
This time Kawin led us to a building with the words “THEOS Control Building” perched above the entrance. It is here that Thailand operates their satellite, THEOS. I flashed back to my days in NASA’s Mission Control Center, seeing tiny numbers dance across screens as they stream in from the vacuum of space. The monitors display the satellite’s health and readiness to deliver valuable data back to Earth. They also serve as the interface for which the operators communicate with THEOS. Kawin interrupted my reminiscing to introduce Athit Sirikhant, a space technologist whose team is innovating the very way operators interact with spacecraft.
Athit pointed to the monitors in front of us, “We have two different systems here for interacting with THEOS and other partner’s satellites. One is our original display and the other is a newer, more graphical display we’re transitioning to.” Athit then directs our attention to something looking like the bridge to the starship Enterprise, “And this is what we plan to one day operate from.” As Athit’s hand slides across the top of the Enterprise’s bridge, screens light up with images of THEOS and more dancing numbers. The prototype is called the Versatile Operational System for Satellite Control and Administration, or VOSSCA.
Recall the last sci-fi movie you saw…or really any movie that is set into the future. Inevitably there would have been a scene where an actor interacts with a display that looks intuitive, simple, yet clearly holds vast amounts of information. Athit admits it’s that kind of scene that inspired VOSSCA. Instead of sitting in front of monitors and staring at flickering numbers, future satellite operators can visually interact with spacecraft data through a large table-top touchscreen. But what about critical commands? Those require multiple steps, so simply brushing crumbs from your sandwich off the display won’t send a spacecraft tumbling.
Currently the VOSSCA unit is still undergoing developmental testing, but Athit and his team hope to have it running before satellite operations become increasingly complex. In the meantime, they are showcasing their innovation to GISTDA’s partners and the occasional conference. We can only imagine how such a system will streamline spacecraft operations in the future!
As Kawin escorted us back to our ride to Bangkok he pointed towards some of the distant antenna dishes, “Before GISTDA even established its ground station, this location is where the first satellite communication happened in Thailand.” At that time, the Communication Authority of Thailand worked with international partners in a feat of collaboration and innovation to help make a technological leap. In a similarly inspiring manner, we hope to see GISTDA’s work lead to great leaps not only throughout Southeast Asia but across the world.