BANGKOK — In a presentation that would put a glimmer in the eye of any James Bond villain, officials spell out the capabilities of a future satellite system to blanket the entire planet in unceasing surveillance.
The network of 112 satellites, called the Theia Satellite Network, are said to bear high-tech cameras with radar and infrared optics that see through clouds, darkness, foliage and even the surface of the earth. A massive 1.47 petabytes of information will be sent back to earth on a daily basis. The slideshow ends with a bold – and ominous – declaration.
“Starting June 30, 2023, Theia will start photographing the entire globe at a resolution of 1/2 meter per shot per second, both day and night, from now until forever,” it said.
It could be a real deal or a fancy scam, but according to leaked documents obtained by Khaosod English, Thai authorities have already take steps to sign on to the Theia project, which will reportedly cost the kingdom at least 63 billion baht. A transparency activist slammed the deal and accused the government of acquiring the satellites for a gigantic snooping effort – an allegation denied by a top official.
“It’s basically spy satellites,” Srisuwan Janya said an interview.
Attention to the plan was first brought by Srisuwan, who regularly monitors government expenditures. The watchdog said the Defense Technology Institute has been weighing investment in a network of 112 satellites being built by a US firm called the Theia Group.
There’s no website for the Theia Group. In fact, for a company with such lofty ambitions, there is a surprising paucity of information online except for a 2016 regulatory filing with the US Federal Communications Commission. It identified the Theia Satellite Network, or TSN, as an “observation and communications network designed to provide unique remote sensing and communications products and services to a variety of users in the United States and worldwide.”
“TSN will employ a constellation of 112 operational satellites in low-Earth orbit … that incorporate remote sensing, signal processing and communications payloads. TSN is designed to collect, process and deliver remote sensing information products directly to end users on demand …,” it continues.
Lawyers at the legal firm which filed the document did not respond to a call and email Monday.
Benevolent Eyes in the Sky?
According documents compiled by the Defense Technology Institute officials for internal use and reviewed by Khaosod English, Theia Group has invited Thailand to be its Southeast Asian partner along with the United States, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. If it declines, the invitation would go to the Philippines.
The cost for joining the program is put at USD$2 billion (63.9 billion baht) which would eclipse all known military acquisitions ever.
The documents also note that the Defense Technology Institute already signed documents with Theia Group committing to participate.
Srisuwan said signing onto an international project without consulting the parliament is illegal, citing Section 178 of the constitution.
“I will file a complaint to the National Anti-Corruption Commission about this,” said the gadfly, who’s submitted more than 1,000 transparency complaints against the government.
But the director of the agency at the center of the controversy said Theia’s satellite network would only be used for civilian purposes such as as searching for resource deposits, though he conceded it could also be used for surveillance and espionage.
“If you ask me whether it could be used that way, my frank answer is yes,” the institute’s Gen. Porpol Maneerin said in an interview. “But we would only use it for the economy … for example, we will see where underseas petroleum deposits are located.”
While Gen. Porpol acknowledged his agency is eyeing the deal with Theia Group, he underscored that Thailand was not buying the satellites; instead, it would be joining the US-led program which would be available to any participatory country. Thailand was merely invited to join it, Porpol added, and no final decision has been made.
“They are inviting us. If we don’t accept it, they will go somewhere else,” the general said.
Asked why the plan was not made public until recently, the general said it was a matter of national security that should not be discussed openly.
Nowhere to Hide
Given reasonable development time, 2023 seems like an ambitious target for a private space operator to develop, test, build and deploy a planetary satellite network.
The apparently unknown firm’s plan to launch more than 100 non-stationary satellites – they would comprise a kind of moving constellation – is similar to that of more than a dozen other companies including SpaceX, according to Commercial Space Blog, which cites research the technology could become a USD$175 billion market.
Ammarin Pimnoo, an engineer at Thailand’s space agency, or GISTDA, said advances in recent years means satellites can photograph objects with increasingly detailed accuracy.
“They don’t only use photography. They also use other technologies to assist the detection,” said Ammarin, who recently announced a project to launch Thai durian into space. “That means anything larger than 30 or 50 centimeters can be seen.”
“There might be spy satellites that can even see smaller than that, but of course, it’s not something they would disclose,” he added.
An editor at Spaceth, a space technology news site, questioned if Theia can deliver the technology it promised to the Thai government, since powerful space photography is highly secretive and only used by a select group of space superpowers like Russia and the United States.
“Usually they won’t tell you what their satellites can do,” Nattanon Dungsunenarn said in an interview. “Currently, consumer products don’t have sufficient resolution to see people walking about.”
Nattanon also casts doubt on Theia Group’s pledge to launch and maintain 112 satellites in the sky, since the company is a newcomer to the space business, and it has yet to launch any one satellite into orbit.
Theia Groups claims its sats can see details as small as 18 centimeters from an orbiting height of 575 kilometers, according to the leaked documents. Their infrared radiation sensors are also said to be capable of penetrating cloud layers, tree cover, darkness and even penetrate up to 100 meters underground.
Each satellite would have a lifespan of 12 to 15 years, the documents said.
But the most awesome purported function is the ability to zoom in and photograph any point on earth at any time thanks to its blanket coverage, according to the documents, which assert that detailed imagery of the entire planet could be obtained in less than a second.
Gen. Porpol said Thailand currently has just one observation sat in orbit – Theos – which only aligns over Thailand every 21 days, whereas satellites in the Theia program would cover every part of the world at any given time, granting Thai researchers a “real-time” view of their country from the sky.
“This news that accuses us of espionage is really damaging,” Porpol said. “We are not planning to use it in that way at all.”
A defense ministry spokesman also said it has no plan to acquire any spy sat.
“Please do not imagine things and distort facts to cause misunderstanding,” Maj. Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich told reporters Monday.
Since the May 2014 coup, the Thai military has embarked on a shopping spree that has included submarines, battle tanks, armored vehicles and trainer jets, drawing anger from critics who believe the money would be better spent on infrastructure.
The previous spending high was a three-submarine fleet to be constructed by a Chinese firm at the cost of 36 billion baht.
Over the years, the military has been duped into making acquisitions that turned out to be outright fraud such as bogus bomb and narcotic detectors that ended up costing the state millions of baht in damages and a 350 million baht “security blimp” that proved unable to fly reliably.
But Porpol, head of the defense tech agency, said even if Thailand decides to join Theia Group, it would be the private sector, not the government, who will shoulder the cost. He refused to discuss the potential cost involved, saying it needs more study.
The leaked documents did not mention any consultation with the private sector. Only military units and state enterprises were notified about the program, like the International Security Operation Command, the Communication Authority of Thailand and the army’s Signals Corps.
While he declined to offer an opinion on the Theia project, GISTDA engineer Ammarin said he hopes the next satellite purchased and launched by Thailand will benefit science rather than the military.
“Personally, I want it to benefit the general public, for example, for education and research purposes,” Ammarin said. “I want it to answer Thailand’s needs as a developing country.”
Nattanon from Spaceth also said he doubted if securing a military satellite service should be a national priority.
“If we lack experience or cannot yet make the most of the satellites’ capabilities, it might be too soon to have it,” he said. “Even many countries that are seen as more politically stable than our country are not seeking this kind of satellite system, like Japan or European nations. Only military superpowers that can influence other countries need it.”
Additional reporting Todd Ruiz