In 2018, the Philippine Scientific Earth Observation Microsatellite (PHL-Microsat) program of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), in partnership with Hokkaido University and Tohoku University of Japan, successfully launched two satellites into orbit. The launch of these two satellites, named Maya-1 and Diwata-2 followed the historic launch of Diwata 1 in March 2016.
THE DIWATAS AND THE MAYA
Named after the benevolent deity from Filipino folklore, Diwata-1 is the first Filipino-designed and built microsatellite. This 55-kilogram diwata is equipped with high tech cameras and sensors that could take pictures of the Philippines all the way from low orbit (around 400 kilometers off the surface of the Earth).
Diwata-1 has been used in various applications, from disaster management, to monitoring agricultural crops, even to monitoring phytoplankton populations in Philippine waters. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live underwater. These organisms affect the quality of the water as well as the fish living inside. Knowing how the populations of these organisms change over time could be vital for local fishermen as it could affect their catch.
On the other hand, Diwata-2 is a slightly more powerful version of her elder sister. Launched in October 2018, Diwata-2 features sharper cameras that produce higher resolution images. Diwata-2 also features deployable solar panels that help power its cameras. This satellite also has an amateur radio, which allows people in the Philippines to communicate through ham radio. This could prove useful in disaster situations such as typhoons, earthquakes, and the like, where telecommunication services would be knocked out.
The smallest of the three, Maya-1, named after the small but iconic bird found in the country, was launched in June 2018. This small cube weighing a little over a kilogram is a nanosatellite that was made in cooperation with the Birds-2 project of the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan. Maya-1 was launched together with two more nanosatellites: BHUTAN-1 from Bhutan and UiTMSAT-1from Malaysia.
This bird carries instruments that could allow Filipinos to send messages when natural disasters render cellular services unusable. Maya-1 is also experimental in nature and is the first of the many small “birds” that are set to fly into space in the future.
SMALL BUT TERRIBLE
The three satellites that our Filipino engineers have sent into space are relatively small in comparison to the commercially developed satellites that have been built by other countries. But as they say, it’s not the size that counts, but the performance.
“Choosing microsatellites as our (vessels in our) foray into space technology is advantageous,” says Engr. Ariston Gonzalez, one of the engineers who developed Diwata-1. He says that microsatellite technology is an economically viable point of entry into space technology.
Developing conventional satellites takes teams of hundreds of engineers, computer scientists, and developers. These satellites also take years to develop and cost hundreds of millions of pesos. Engr. Gonzalez remarks that even though our microsatellites not costly, their capabilities are not necessarily compromised, as shown by what our satellites can do.
“Developing microsatellites requires less space, smaller teams, a shorter development time,” he adds, “but their performance is optimal to the needs of what we need for now in the Philippines.”
A common dilemma faced by scientists and engineers in developing countries is being asked if what they do is worthwhile. Faced by the challenges of poverty, lack of infrastructure, and various socio-economic problems, people might believe that doing science and basic research is the last thing a country needs to spend taxes on. This is the same dilemma faced by our engineers who developed our microsatellites.
“The technology that we’re doing now, it’s not ‘spoon-to-mouth’ technology,” Engr. Gonzalez remarks, and this is true since microsatellite technology is not something that the ordinary Filipino will see everyday. “But it is an empowering tool that leverages on the things that the government is looking for,” he adds.
While microsatellites are literally far away (about 500 kilometers) from us as we go about our daily lives, their applications are vast. As an example, satellite data has been used to monitor agricultural crops. Images obtained from our satellites have been used to determine the health and quality of farmlands, thus helping improve the quality of harvest. Traditionally, teams of people would be needed to go over and study hectares and hectares of land. With satellite imaging, the work is optimized since an overview of the farmland is readily available.
Satellite data has also been used in disaster management. Rescue teams have limited manpower and resources; giving these teams accurate maps of where the damage occurred based from satellite images can help them identify where to go first so that they could save more lives.
“We provide actionable data for our stakeholders to optimize their resources,” says Engr. Gonzalez. The data that our satellites provide are not just dummy points but have direct applications in and consequences on the daily lives of Filipinos.
GAINING STAMINA FOR SPACE
The success of the PHL-Microsat program served as the country’s first steps into establishing its own space program. The Sustained Support for Local Space Technology and Applications Mastery, Innovation and Advancement (STAMINA4Space) Program is the successor to PHL-Microsat and aims to further develop the study of space technology in the country as well as train future Filipino space scientists.
STAMINA4Space officially became the Philippines’ space initiative in February 2019. The program focuses on the development and training of indigenous experts in space technology and applications, especially in the research and development of micro and nanosatellites.
The project will use the results from its predecessor to develop novel applications and come up with further advances in space technology. It also aims to build research bases that will be available for use in high value industries in the country such as aerospace and communication technology. Most importantly, STAMINA4Space aims to create a conducive environment that will develop and train Filipino researchers, scientists, and engineers in the field of space and small satellite technology.
More specifically, STAMINA4Space aims to achieve mastery of small satellite technology in the Philippines through its four subprojects—PHL-50, OPTIKAL, GRASPED, and STeP-UP—all of which are in collaboration with the country’s top science and engineering research institutes.
PHL-50 or “Building PHL-50: Localizing the Diwata-1, 2 Bus System as the Country’s Space Heritage 50 kg Microsatellite Bus” project aims to develop the “bus” of the microsatellites that are being produced by STAMINA4Space. This project is in partnership with the UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute (UP EEEI).
“We can look at it like a literal bus,” says Engr. Gonzalez, describing what a satellite bus is. Each bus is different depending on what they are built for. There are public buses, private buses, school buses, and a lot more. The parts of the bus are modified depending on its function but all of these buses have certain redundant parts that make it a bus, like the engine, wheels, and chassis.
As Engr. Gonzalez explains, buses are like satellites, each satellite is different depending on its “mission.” Satellites can have different missions: communication, observation, and others. But regardless, all of these satellites have redundant parts that make it a satellite. These parts make up the “bus” of the satellite.
Satellite buses are the general design models of microsatellites that are useful for mass production. These provide the overall infrastructure of the satellite. For STAMINA4Space, the development of its own microsatellite bus is vital since it gives a platform for more satellite missions in the future and starts the “heritage” of flight electronics.
OPTIKAL, or Optical Payload Technology, In-Depth Knowledge Acquisition and Localization, focuses mainly on the development of satellite “payloads” which are usually the scientific instruments and sensors attached onto the satellite. These include precision telescopes, imaging sensors, and cameras to be used in satellite imagery, weather prediction, climate science, and other applications. Project partners include the National Institute of Physics of UP Diliman and the UP Training Center for Applied Geodesy and Photogrammetry (UP TCAGP).
The Ground Receiving, Archiving, Science Product Development and Distribution or GRASPED project aims to improve the on-ground operations of the Diwata microsatellites as well as the future satellites that STAMINA4Space will produce. GRASPED focuses on processing, archiving, and distributing the data obtained from the microsatellites to relevant agencies such as PAGASA, PHIVOLCS, and various research laboratories in the country. This project is being implemented by the DOST-ASTI, UP TCAGP, and the UP Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology.
Meanwhile, the Space Science and Technology Proliferation through University Partnerships or STeP-UP project aims to train competent Filipino space scientists by partnering with foreign universities. This enables the UP EEEI to offer a Masters in Engineering program with a specialization in nanosatellite engineering.
SIZING UP TO OTHER SATELLITES
“Diwata-1 and 2 are doing fairly good” says Engr. Gonzalez when asked to compared these with microsatellites developed by other countries, adding that Diwata-1 and 2 are at par in terms of quality. Most microsatellite technologies are experimental, since small satellites are only up and coming in the field of space technology.
Regardless of its experimental state of microsatellite technology, the successful launch of our Filipino-made satellites give a huge statement on how well made they are. “Launching experimental satellites is a big deal,” Engr. Gonzalez remarks. “They go on a one-way trip.” The impact of a failed launch is a huge deal for the engineers since this would mean that they are going to lose the satellite in its entirety in space.
“If we have our own space assets, there would be an impact in our economy and finance,” he says. “It is not cheap to get data from commercial satellites.” Engr. Gonzalez says that previously, we had to get satellite data by buying such from commercially available satellites developed by other countries.
“Besides reducing costs, having our own space assets will help in developing capabilities to build satellites, which would develop people who would develop infrastructure in the country.”
STAMINA4Space and our microsatellites are just the beginning of the long journey towards an actual space agency in the country. However, the present Philippine space program, although still at its infancy, shows a lot of promise. Space technology is a valuable investment for the Philippines as it advances the science and technology capabilities of the country, which would in turn advance our economy and industries. — JUAN ANTONIO MAGALANG