Indonesia's bid for space credentials takes off

It test-fires miniature rocket as prelude to sending home-grown rocket into orbit

A photo snapped on Nov 19 last year showing a miniature test rocket taking off as Indonesia's little-known space agency, the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space, tested equipment on barren scrub land in Lumajang, East Java. PHOTO: AGENCE FRAN
A photo snapped on Nov 19 last year showing a miniature test rocket taking off as Indonesia's little-known space agency, the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space, tested equipment on barren scrub land in Lumajang, East Java. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LUMAJANG (Java) • Workers snap the miniature rocket's wings into place as Indonesia's little-known space agency readies its latest launch on scrub land in East Java.

With a 3,2,1 blast-off, the 2m-long projectile belches a trail of fire and then soars a few hundred metres before crashing in a heap - earning a thumbs up from scientists who declared the test a success.

It is a very long way from a Mission Control in Houston, Texas, but the country's answer to Nasa has big hopes and is now planning to build its first spaceport on a tropical island off the coast of easternmost Papua.

"We've got a dream to put our own sounding rocket into space within five years," said Ms Lilis Mariani, a senior official for the Rocket Technology Centre at the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space, known as Lapan.

A sounding rocket has instruments to take measurements and carry out experiments during flight.

"It would be good for atmospheric research in agriculture and forestry," she added.

Some experts question how realistic that timeline is, and officials acknowledge that much will depend on whether Jakarta stumps up the necessary funds.

There is resurgent international interest in space travel and colonisation, with US space agency Nasa planning to send two astronauts to the Moon by 2024, some 55 years after its last mission there.

SpaceX, a private US firm launched by Tesla chief Elon Musk, has said its first crewed flight will launch in the first half of this year, while Virgin Galactic plans a series of missions in the next three years.

Indonesia's space agency is a relative minnow, however, dwarfed in Asia by its counterparts in Japan, China and India.

Lapan has had some success with developing research satellite technology, but it wants to make its mark in space flight by sending a home-grown rocket into orbit.

Back at the launch site in East Java last November, Lapan's scientists were gauging the tiny test rocket's speed, movement and other specifications.

"It was stable on take-off and moved well," said Ms Sri Kilawati, head of the centre's rocket control programme. "The objective was to study rocket control. They travel at a very high rate of speed, so you've got to observe their behaviour."

Achieving a real-life launch in five years requires a giant leap, conceded Mr Lavi Zuhal, head of aerospace engineering at Bandung Institute of Technology.

"Lapan is still far behind in terms of launch technology, although it has been quite successful in developing satellites," Mr Zuhal explained. "The engineers at Lapan haven't fully mastered rocket technology yet."

Ms Kilawati acknowledged that achieving Indonesia's ambitions for a state-of-the-art launch centre is not just about technological prowess. "Funding comes from state coffers so it depends a lot on the government's priorities," she said.

Indonesia's space aspirations began in the early 1960s with the creation of Lapan, and it was one of the first developing nations to have communications satellites launched into space by the United States, where they were made.

It planned to send an astronaut into space with Nasa, but the bid was shelved in the wake of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger crash and no other opportunities have come to pass.

But now Lapan is now talking to its Russia counterpart about sending one of its astronauts on a future mission - though there are few concrete details so far.

Indonesia has cooperated on space technology with the US, Germany, Japan and the Ukraine, among others over the years. Two of its home-grown satellites - used in research to mitigate natural disasters - were launched into orbit by India in 2015.

But the lack of infrastructure remains a serious problem.

In November last year, Indonesia finally confirmed plans to construct its first spaceport off the coast of Papua, acknowledging that its existing launch site is too risky for large rocket launches because it is too small and is in a densely populated area.

The new location on the equator is also ideal as it cuts fuel costs and could potentially draw interest from other countries, experts said.

Getting one of its own citizens into orbit would bolster the nation's space record.

"An Indonesian astronaut could boost (its) space profile internationally," said Mr Phil Smith, an analyst at US-based Bryce Space and Technology. "But it would more significantly inspire Indonesian citizens."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2020, with the headline Indonesia's bid for space credentials takes off. Subscribe