PH takes small steps, as it aims for giant leaps in space technology

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The International Space Station.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — "Oscar November 4, India-Sierra-Sierra, this is Delta-X-Ray-1-India-Sierra-Sierra, Philippines, all copy. Over."

It was a message repeated 27 times by Philippine space engineer Leo Almazan, as the International Space Station (ISS) passed over the Philippines late afternoon of February 17.

A group of high school students tensely waited, as they looked at a little yellow blip on a blue radar screen indicating the location of the ISS. But all they got was silence.

"We only have a (communication) window of about 10 minutes, horizon to horizon," Almazan explained to the students. "Might be shorter, due to time delays, and other factors beyond our control."

The attempted contact would have been the first for the children who were eager to ask NASA astronauts questions on space exploration and technology.

Almazan said Philippine technology was adequate to contact the international satellite. But if what happened that day was any indication, it appears the country's ability to advance its space program has a long way to go, even as the country marks the second year since the launching of DIWATA-1, the first Philippine microsatellite and the first satellite built and designed by Filipinos.

The Philippines' attempt to develop its space program is continually hounded by two problems: lack of funding for space research and development to further improve on technologies, and the lack of a centralized space agency to coordinate initiatives for exploring beyond the Earth.

"We'll try probably one more time in May," Almazan said on the attempt to contact. "For the high school students, we'll probably get one more try."

Engaging young minds in space technology and innovation has been part of the Department of Science and Technology's (DOST) agenda since it launched the Philippine Space Science Education Program in 2004.

The director of DOST's Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI), Dr. Joel Marciano, said the missed contact was a coordination challenge and not a technology issue. However, having led for more than two years the department in charge of space engineering and exploration, he said there are many challenges facing space technology development in the country.

Joel Marciano is the director of the DOST's Advanced Science and Technology, the department in charge of advanced fields of information and communication technology—including space engineering and exploration.

"Space technology is tough, challenging, it's of course, a new area for our country. And we thought the best way we can get our hands dirty and get more experience is through building satellites. It's not sort of sending people to the moon, and space exploration. It's using, building something that can have some application," he said.

The country's involvement with space technology could be traced as far back as 1987, when it procured broadcast satellite AGILA-1. Originally launched by Indonesian company PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara, it was bought by the Philippines to enhance communication for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit at the time.

Engineer Raul Sabularse of the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development said the country's investment in space technology actually helps them save on cost. Expenses for purchasing satellite images from other foreign satellites could go as high as ₱3.5 billion a year, said Dr. Rogel Sese, program leader of the National Space Development Program.

"Many of our agencies rely on foreign images to look at what's happening in the forest areas, in other areas of the Philippines," Sabularse said.

Engr. Raul Sabularse of the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development.

Putting a satellite into orbit

With the launch of DIWATA-1, one of the greatest achievements of the country's space exploration program, agencies are now more able to download images from the microsatellite.

"We consider that a success because still even though this area is increasingly improving, there's still failed launches, and there's still failed satellites when they get into orbit, so we consider the fact that we have managed to launch a satellite, put it into orbit, and operate it, that's a success in itself," Marciano said.

The microsatellite program or PHL-Microsat is a joint venture among DOST-ASTI, UP Diliman, and the Tohoku and Hokkaido Universities in Japan. The three-year program has spent over ₱874 million to keep more than 50 scientists and engineers, as well as purchase facilities and equipment.

It was able to launch a 50-kilogram satellite with four cameras to capture weather patterns, vegetation, and land-water resources. These are used by government agencies, like the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, Astronomical Services Administration, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, for research and disaster mitigation.

Some of the recent images sent in by DIWATA-1 includes a top view of Mayon Volcano's eruption in Albay in January.

DIWATA-1's Middle Field Camera captures the volcanic activity of Mayon was on January 30 at 12:47 PM.

The Department of Budget and Management has also partnered with DOST for Project DIME (Digital Imaging for Monitoring and Evaluation), which allows satellites and drones to aid existing terrestrial technologies to monitor the speed of implementing 13 government projects.

In orbit, DIWATA-1 passes over multiple areas of the Philippine territory at four to five times a day, with each pass lasting more than six minutes. During its run, DIWATA-1 has so far captured more than 15,000 images, including 22 percent of the country's land area. However, cloud cover and resolution remain a problem for image capture.

"One way you can improve that is by having more satellites in orbit. And that's the objective of having a consortium," the DOST said.

The Philippines is also part of the Asian Micro-satellite Consortium, a group of space agencies and universities dedicated to developing micro-satellite technology and data sharing. Under this agreement, 50 microsatellites from various schools and institutions in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam will be launched.

This includes DIWATA-1's successor, DIWATA-2, which will be sent to space in 2018, with the help of Japan's national space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The DIWATA-2 prototype.

Aside from DIWATA-1's original payload of cameras, the new microsatellite will enjoy the addition of an amateur radio unit.

"It's an alternate mode of communication when certain challenges happen to our islands, like maputulan ng (interrupted) communication infrastructure," Marciano said. After all, low-Earth-orbit satellites like DIWATA-1 only have a lifespan of around 18 months before they disintegrate. As it is, the satellite has gone on for nearly two years now.

The country is also set to launch a cube satellite, as well as import two microsatellites and another cube satellite for Philippine laboratories so engineers may further study their creation and development.

The recent space innovations have been the work of more than 50 engineers, scientists, and students involved in the PHL-Microsat program, which allows engineers interested in space technology to be sent to Tohoku and Hokkaido Universities to learn more about the industry.

Creating a space agency, at last

The country is also well on its way to creating a Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), with President Rodrigo Duterte's announcement in February to create a National Space Development Office as its precursor.

Duterte and DOST Secretary Fortunato dela Peña have expressed support for creating a PhilSA. Seven bills are pending in both houses of Congress for the creation of this agency, including one introduced by Sen. Bam Aquino.

Aquino said a new space-dedicated agency will improve the capacity of government bodies tapping space innovation.

"The need for a Philippine Space Agency is further emphasized by the demands of coordination with counterpart institutions from other advanced and emerging space nation," he said in an interview.

Under Aquino's bill, ₱1 billion is allocated for PhilSA's first year of operation, supporting space research and development.

Senator Bam Aquino filed Senate Bill No. 1211, which aims to create the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA).

The senator also cited that prior briefings with the DOST estimated PhilSA could operate under a budget of ₱20 to ₱30 billion on a 10-year time frame.

Asked if ₱1 billion per year for a space agency is enough, Sabularse said it depends on what the country wants to achieve, as the amount could be spent easily on one large satellite alone.

"Kulang pa tayo sa tao, kulang pa sa capability, kulang pa sa infrastructure [We lack manpower, capability, infrastructure] to support a space program," he said, adding PhilSA seeks to have more than 800 people in 10 years for it to be competitive.

The DOST's Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) also opened up opportunities for students who could be later be hired and provide the necessary manpower for space development programs.

"They (DOST-SEI) handle scholarship programs, so they provide some slots on Space Science Education," Sabularse said. "They foresee the need for more people to get into space science and engineering."

For Marciano, having a satellite provides a concrete platform to attract young people into the field.

That afternoon with the ISS, students wanted to find out from the astronauts how the youth can actively participate in space programs.

One of them, Nicole Bautista from the Holy Angel University, had a more specific question, "How long would it take for an astronaut to get walking again on Earth?" as he imagined the loss of gravity in space would make it hard for anyone to get their Earth-legs back.

It was a question NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei never heard, and never got to answer.

But Bautista and his classmates might get lucky during the next attempt at contact this May, one of the little steps the country takes to promote and move forward with its space development program.