Air force set to conquer final frontier
Special report: RTAF's first satellite will fight fires, bust pollution and look for spies, writes Wassana Nanuam
The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) is planning to launch the first satellite of its own in an ambitious effort to embark on missions it says will be more varied than those seen in the classic science fiction movie Star Wars.
The military is using the Hollywood hit to both draw attention to its new project but also emphasis the wider scope of the work it has planned, which includes a number of non-military projects.
However, just getting the Napa-1 probe off the ground at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana is proving to be something of a hurdle in itself.
A launch scheduled for today, like many other events in the world, was cancelled due to the global coronavirus pandemic which has restricted travel and the activities of staff and officials in French Guiana.
This is the third delay after earlier cancellations in September and December last year caused by technical problems with a carrier rocket.
Napa-1 is tasked with Earth observation and the RTAF hopes it will collect data that will not only help to protect national airspace but also contribute in the fight against other "invisible" enemies like the hazardous PM2.5 microdust that blankets much of the nation on a yearly basis.
"Star Wars is not just a movie, it is an inspiration," AVM Supijjarn Thamwatharsaree, chief of the newly established air force-based Space Operation Centre (Spoc), told the Bangkok Post of the air force's plan to boldly take operations into orbit.
AVM Supijjarn said the satellite can reinforce efforts to tackle national disasters especially the bushfires in northern provinces.
Last Thursday, haze, mainly caused by forest fires, blanketed parts of Chiang Mai, making it the world's most polluted city on the US Air Quality Index.
While face masks are the protective gear of choice for those on the ground, the Napa-1 too can be a tool on the environmental front line, according to AVM Supijjarn.
AVM Supijjarn is quick to dismiss any accusation that the name of the satellite bears any similarity to the giant US space agency "Nasa". In fact, he says, the name was born from the Thai word napa which means sky.
Alternative names like "RTAF", which was initially picked, sounded too militaristic, he said. Preferring a word with a softer tone, the officers eventually decided to use napa, a word that also frequently appears in a literary context.
The air force has bought Napa-1 from Innovative Solutions in Space, a small satellite manufacturer based in the Netherlands.
AVM Supijjarn would not reveal its exact price.
Napa-1 is technically a CubeSat 6U model and will begin work when it finally goes into orbit around the middle of this year and will work in tandem with a Napa-2, scheduled to be launched in July.
According to the air force, both satellites are equipped with sophisticated imaging equipment, although the Napa-2 will take pictures with higher resolutions. They will work for three years before decommissioning.
"Our plan is to have many satellites for many different missions," AVM Supijjarn said.
Though weighing only 5.37 kilogrammes, the air force believes the Napa probes have enormous potential to help it with both military and non-military missions.
"Photos taken by Napa will be analysed for ISR," AVM Supijjarn said, referring to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions that will help soldiers fight battles on the ground in the case of a war.
"We need to guard economic interests worth more than 50 billion baht."
Spoc will also keep watch for foreign "spy satellites".
"Each day at least 300 satellites fly over our country," AVM Supijjarn said.
If any suspicious activity is recorded, the government will inform and issue a protest" against the country from which it originates, he said.
Environmentally, the Napa satellites will also help officials better locate hot spots in bushfire areas so that firefighting efforts can be focused more effectively.
"Planes and helicopters need to know the exact locations where they can use their Precision Container Aerial Delivery Systems to release water and chemicals to tame the wildfires," AVM Supijjarn said.
This will ultimately have the knock-on effect of significantly reducing the levels of PM2.5 released into the atmosphere, he added
While the Napa project will soon allow the air force to cooperatively work with the Theos-2 satellite, operated by the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, in the long term, Spoc is also making preparations to unleash a new special unit of "Jedis", according to AVM Supijjarn.
He was referring to a group of 80 Spoc personnel who will pave the way for the centre to build its own satellite technology.
"These officials, including a number of space experts with doctorate degrees, have already saved the air force tens of millions of baht with the software they were able to develop in-house," he said.
Further satellite purchases will be made under purchase and development contracts, in which foreign manufactures will be asked to transfer technology to Thailand, according to AVM Supijjarn.
"In the real world, what we are doing is more than just preparing for battles like in Star Wars, whether they are missions for military affairs, economic security or environmental protection," he said.
"This new high-level team at Spoc -- both in terms of manpower and legal authority -- will be the cornerstone for the centre to attain its goals" believes AVM Supijjarn.
"May the force be with them," he chuckled.