Meet the future of Philippine space exploration

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 02 2019 10:05 PM | Updated as of Dec 02 2019 11:52 PM

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In one of the buildings of the University of the Philippines’ science complex, a team of young engineers and scientists is busy at work - studying and building what is supposed to be the country’s first locally made satellite.

Among them is electronics engineer Renzo Wee from Zamboanga, who is responsible for ensuring that the cube satellite can withstand the harsh environment of outer space.

He helped set up a monitor showing the movement of one of the Philippine satellites already deployed in space, Diwata-2, which was assembled by Filipino engineers in another country.

Wee pointed to a marker showing Diwata-2 in the area of the United States. 

“It won’t pass over the Philippines until much later,” the 24-year-old engineer said.

The marker inched up the map, which basically means Diwata-2 is moving - hurtling across space - 620 kilometers above ground. 

The satellite that Wee and the other scholars are working on is much smaller than the 56-kilogram Diwata-2. At 10 cubic centimeters, a cube satellite can easily rest on the palm of your hand. Despite its small size, it is packed with instruments such as sensors and cameras, which will allow government to survey agricultural crops, protected forests and other areas of concern.

Maya-1 is deployed to space from the International Space Station. Alexander Gerst ESA/STAMINA4Space

CHILDHOOD DREAM

As a child, Wee dreamt of becoming an astronaut and so he was “immensely interested” when he read on social media that the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) was offering scholarships for those willing to participate in their microsatellite program.

“It’s better to live a life full of ‘Oh wells’ than live a life full of ‘What ifs,’” he said, recalling how he decided to try out for the scholarship, which requires participants to let go of their jobs to become full-time students.

For the longest time, young Filipinos like Wee who wanted to become astronauts or be involved in space research had no way of pursuing it in the Philippines. Those who had the means to seriously pursue their passion often had to study and work abroad. 

But in recent years, the Philippines has been investing in space research. Since 2015, UP and the DOST’s Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI) have been sending engineers to Japan to participate in its microsatellite program, in a bid to further the nation’s technological capabilities and to save money spent on satellite imagery from other countries. The partnership with Japan has resulted in the assembly and launch of the following satellites in the last four years: microsatellite Diwata-1 (2016), cube satellite Maya-1 (2018) and microsatellite Diwata-2 (2018). 

In August, the Philippines approved a law creating its own space agency.

With the future of space exploration looking bright, Wee is excited to see what will happen in the next few years.

IMPORTANT STEP

After a series of tests and screening, Wee and seven others from different science backgrounds and regions were accepted into UP’s graduate program for electrical engineering and into the Space Technology and Applications Mastery, Innovation and Advancement (STAMINA4Space) program of the DOST.

For Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, who heads the STAMINA4Space program and the DOST-ASTI, said making cube satellites locally is an important step for the Philippines.

“Building satellites is one way you can be in space,” he said. “These smaller satellites are becoming more powerful, can take meaningful missions, experiments in space.”

Marciano said it can be likened to cellphones that are small but are now able to take videos and other data.

“We expect these platforms (satellites) to evolve,” he says. 

Marciano said they chose a university setting for their team because of practical reasons - an existing graduate program, among others - and the fact that “all the creative ideas, all the young enthusiastic hardworking people are there.”

“You just need to guide and mentor them. Give them a lot of resources,” he said.

STAMINA4Space program

UNIQUE LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Under the nanosatellite track of UP’s Master of Science or Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering program, the scholars are being personally trained by senior engineers who created the first batch of Filipino-made satellites.

Assistant professor Paul Jason Co, head of the STAMINA4Space’s Space Science and Technology Proliferation through University Partnerships (STeP-UP), says the students attend lectures and are subjected to hands-on training.

“They learn about satellite communications, space environment, orbital mechanics,” Co said. “In directed studies that’s where they actually learn how to build the cube satellite.”

Co said they have a replica of Maya-1, which they use to teach the graduate students. “They’ve been studying the different components of Maya-1…They’ve been playing around with all aspects of Maya-1. And they do that hands-on not just by reading books. And that’s the very unique part of this degree program.”

As Wee and the others work on their computers, computer engineer Lorilyn Daquioag is hunched over a circuit board, cutting and connecting wires.

The 31-year-old engineer from Davao City is studying how to create an onboard computer.

“(It’s) the brain of the satellite,” she said as she tested her work.

Like Daquioag, two scholars from the Philippine Navy’s Naval Research and Technology Department - electronics and communications engineer Marielle Gregorio, 32, and computer science graduate Christy Raterta, 30 - are working on their circuit boards.

Their ultimate mission? To help start the Navy’s own microsatellite program. 

“While our ships have radars for surveillance, the coverage is limited. If you have a satellite in space, your will have a broader coverage,” said Gregorio, who hails from Bohol.

Gregorio is assigned to build the electronic power system, which gives life to the satellite, while Raterta is responsible for the satellite’s program. Both of them work together on the satellite’s radio.

“It’s fun,” Raterta, who is from Iligan, told ABS-CBN. “Each one of us have his or her own set of skills. So we are able to help each other on areas we are not familiar with.”

Bryan Custodio, 22, who was an electronics engineering instructor at the FEU Institute of Technology, said their rigorous training is “one-of-a-kind.” 

“Every day is a chance to learn something new,” says Custodio who is the designated team leader.

Maya-1 is the Philippines' first cube satellite, which is just 10 cubic centimeters in size.  Kyutech/STAMINA4Space

CHALLENGES

Since all of the scholars are required to be full-time students, relying mainly on their stipends, each of them has had to make their own sacrifices. 

“You have to leave your job. All of us have our own sacrifices,” said Daquioag who not only had to leave her career in the software industry but also bring her child with her to live in Metro Manila.

Despite this, she said getting the scholarship is a great opportunity to learn skills that she can share with the younger generation of Filipinos who want to be involved in science and technology.

Meanwhile, Gregorio has to be away from her daughters who are staying with her parents in Bohol. Although this has been the case before as she and her husband, who is also with the Navy, are deployed elsewhere in the Philippines.

For the most part, these young engineers believe that challenges make the work more interesting.

Gladys Bajaro, who was a research staff of the Philippine microsatellite program before applying for a scholarship, said she is inspired to follow the footsteps of senior engineers who constructed the Philippines’ first microsatellites.

“It’s challenging but exciting work so far,” said the 21-year-old electronics and communications engineer who is in charge of the ground station and the satellite’s mission payload, which will include cameras and other components.

Meanwhile, electronics engineer Judiel Reyes, 25, and applied physics graduate Derick Canceran, 21, are both fascinated at the number of components they are trying to fit inside the cube satellite.

“How do they fit everything into a single cube?” Reyes said. “That brings excitement to engineers - to be able to do something that seems impossible.”

“It’s also a challenge to decide which components to choose,” said Canceran, who is using his physics background to set up the satellite’s control system.

There are also challenges that are out of the engineers' hands, such as procurement through a government institution.

“The program is still new so acquiring equipment is still a challenge,” Canceran says.

Marciano says the program is really meant to reveal “inherent problems” in transplanting processes learned overseas. 

“We don’t want our researchers worrying about those things,” Marciano says of administrative and other logistical tasks.

LOCALIZATION

Besides testing how possible it is to assemble satellites in the Philippines, Co said among the main objectives of the program is to “localize” payload such as cameras.

They will do this by using locally-made and commercially-available components and testing them in space. 

In the past, it was the other way around, with scientists and engineers creating space-grade equipment that are later used on Earth. With the advancement in technology, some consumer components might prove to be space-grade as well, according to Marciano.

“We are engaging local industries,” Co said. “At the end of the day, the main goal of the program is to build the space industry (in the Philippines).”

Co said this will ensure that locally-made satellites will remain sustainable. “It’s not sustainable to always rely on foreign partners for supply.”

Marciano added that they want to encourage the local industry to go beyond their usual customer-supplier relationship.

“We want to bring that to the next level,” he says. “We want to have partnerships with industry groups and companies wherein they’re also willing to make an investment to learning this technology and how they can expand their current portfolio.”

The University of the Philippines now has a full anechoic chamber which is used to test satellites and other technologies. The DOST hopes such facilities can be used to help local industries produce space-grade products. STAMINA4Space Program

FUTURE 

In a year or so, the scholars will delivery two cube satellites, which will then be deployed in space to join other Philippine satellites. 

During Diwata-2’s anniversary this year, Marciano said the Philippines will have 13 satellites in five years, some of them in space and the others serving as engineering models for students.

Asked what their plans are after the launch, team leader Custodio said he might go back to the academe and share what he learned, adhering to the main objective of the program.

Like the others, he is also mulling the possibility of joining the government.

“Once the Philippine Space Agency is fully established, maybe we can all be part of it,” he said.

 As for Wee, he is already thinking about the possibility of the Philippines launching its own rocket in the future.

“We’re near the equator. It’s more efficient,” he said. “That’ll be our advantage against other launching sites. It would boost our economy.”

While Marciano believes that it will probably take a long time before we can launch our own rocket or send a Filipino to space, he is optimistic about bringing the microsatellite program down to the undergraduate and even high school level.

He said people should not underestimate cube satellites, which provide society with important data.

“Satellites are things that we utilize every day,” Marciano said, explaining how they are used for weather monitoring, mapping land use, traffic apps and systems used to observe the earth from space. “Without them we are less productive.”

“At the end of the day, it’s all about information being at hand when we need it. Satellites contribute to it,” he said.

Last month, STAMINA4Space announced a new call for applications for its second batch of scholars. Visit their Facebook page (STAMINA4Space / PHL-Microsat) for more information.