PH-made nanosatellites, tech-infused thunderstorm project now underway

High-impact technologies — from understanding lightning and thunderstorms to the first Filipino-made nanosatellites – are expected to be launched and deployed this year, according to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

DOST secretary Fortunato dela Pena discussing during a press briefing the thunderstorm and nanosatellite projects as part of its 20 major initiatives in 2020

“These technologies provide solutions to socio-economic problems, particularly in the provinces,” said Brenda L. Nazareth-Manzano, DOST undersecretary for regional operations.

“The technologies, when adopted, will help level the playing field for in the countryside and enable growth and development,” she said, adding the “incredibly useful technologies are products of Filipino scientists, researchers, engineers, inventors  and innovators.”

For a start, 50 monitoring stations in Metro Manila and 10 lightning stations in the provinces will be deployed by the DOST in a five-year, P85-million project research called ULAT (Understanding Lightning and Thunderstorms for Extreme Weather Monitoring and Information Sharing).

They will help in the study of thunderstorm behavior to better understand extreme and localized weather events to enhance the short-term forecasting capacity of weather scientists.

The ULAT project is a collaboration between the DOST’s Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI), PAGASA, the University of the Philippines Institute for Environmental Science and Meteorology, Hokkaido University, Japan Science and Technology Agency and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

JICA will chip in P53 million while the DOST will put in P32 million to fund ULAT.

The ULAT network features infrasound sensors that detect acoustic waves emitted in hazardous atmospheric events such as typhoons. A satellite antenna will generate a three-dimensional structure of thunderclouds.

All these information are transmitted by 3G communications to a data server, in the process developing an algorithm for forecasting. In the future, when protocols have been determined, data will be shared with government agencies and other organizations involved in disaster risk reduction.

The automated lightning observation network comes with an automatic weather monitoring system. It has sensors that measure the strength of electric fields in the atmosphere, used as a key parameter to watch for lightning strikes.

“By studying torrential rainfall and thunderstorm occurrences, ULAT will improve weather forecasting,” said DOST secretary Fortunato T. Dela Pena, adding it will help lower the risk and ease the impact of weather-related disasters.

“It will be a first of its kind,” he said.

Part of ULAT is a 3.5-meter satellite tracking antenna in a Ground Receiving Station that opens this year in Dumangas, Iloilo. It will complement those already operational in Quezon City and Davao City.

The Iloilo station will provide additional capacity in communicating with the country’s two Diwata microsatellites. The satellites will take photographs of cloud activities for 3D estimation based on the amount of thundercloud precipitation during rainfall.

Also part of the DOST initiatives to bring high technology to the islands are two nanosatellites called Diwata 3 and Diwata 4, each weighing about 1 kilogram. They are now being constructed at UP Diliman.

The launch could come as early as May until July, said Dela Pena.

The nanosatellites – also called CubeSats – will be released into orbit from the International Space Station. Outer space starts about 100 kilometers above sea level; the Filipino-made satellites will orbit about 400 kilometers above sea level.

The P20 million R&D funding for the two new nanosatellites comes from ASTI and DOST’s Science Education Institute.

The nanosatellites will house components designed to demonstrate satellite-based remote data collection and optical imaging. Their mission is to test and demonstrate technologies that include, among others, a Store-and-Forward capability. This enables scientists to upload data from sensors located in remote areas into the satellites.

The data are then transmitted back to ground receiving stations in Quezon City and Davao – and Iloilo when it becomes operational. The information downloaded is then shared to scientists to process and analyze. Ultimately, it will be used by policy-makers, disaster-related agencies, and local governments.

Through their onboard radios and antennas, the nanosatellites provide quick information for emergency response teams. The satellites can be used as platforms for alternative means of communication when typhoons and disasters strike. They are useful as well for the amateur radio community.

The two nanosatellites will join three other Philippine satellites in the micro-class already orbiting in space. Another microsatellite called Diwata 5 will be launched before the end of 2022.

Microsatellites are lightweight, usually under 500 kilograms, and are less expensive to launch from Earth. The Philippine versions are the 50-kilogram Diwata 1 launched in 2016 and the 47-kg Diwata 2 launched in 208 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency or JAXA. The satellites are still in orbit and continue to transmit data to the two ground receiving stations in operation.

The Philippines is now looking at space agencies other than JAXA to launch the next-generation microsatellites. As with the previous satellites, they will be released into orbit from the International Space Station.

The nanosatellites now under construction are being developed by the first batch of DOST scholars from several universities studying space engineering at UP Diliman. The first batch of eight scholars will be followed by another batch this year.

“The space technology know-how will advance our nascent space efforts,” Dela Pena said.

The nanosatellites are the first to be built entirely by Filipinos at UP and in collaboration with other universities. The first two microsatellites were built by Filipino engineers the DOST sent to Tohoku University and Hokkaido University in Japan as part of their Ph.D. studies.

The local satellites are part of the Master of Science and Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering graduate programs at UP Diliman. 

“The nanosatellites provide local opportunities to acquire space technology know-how through hands-on experience in microsatellite development,” Dela Pena said.

The aim is to generate a lot of space satellite data and use the science-based information for applications that are useful for agriculture, national security, natural resources, disaster mitigation, land use, environment, communication and so on.

DOST has initially identified the priorities of the national space research and development program: national security and development; hazard management and climate studies; space industry capacity building; and international cooperation.

Three Filipino-made satellites are operating while data is also generated from the satellites of other countries. Eight international collaborations for space R&D are on-going with other space organizations worldwide.

“Space data is the new oil,” said Dr. Joel Joseph S. Marciano, director-general of the newly created Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA).

Marciano is a professor at the Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute at the UP College of Engineering, where he is in a position to mentor the space engineering scholars.

PhilSA was created last August 8 with an initial budget of P10 billion allocated for the next five years.

The country’s aerospace program is starting with a smaller class of satellites and going towards bigger ones, said Marciano. Because the satellite will not be the main payload for the rocket launcher of other countries and will just piggyback, “the launch cost will be cheaper,” he explained.

The PhilSA chief said engineers are currently studying the proposal for a 100-kg space microsatellite.

“We want the system in place. While the country’s aerospace program is still on the research and development stage, it is moving towards bigger satellites. The larger they are, the more capable they will be. While the cost goes up, we already have a better understanding of the operation so we are scaling up,” he said.

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