Amidst COVID-19 troubles on the ground, the nation looked to space for hope on August 6, 2020 as the “space sector” behind the launch of and knowledge product creation through the first ever Philippine-made microsatellites held a press briefing. The event, “Our Place in Space: What’s Next for the Philippines Space Sector?”, invited the media for a virtual discussion over Zoom to talk about what’s next in terms of research and development (R&D) from the sector a year after the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) was officially established with Republic Act 11363.
The organizations that make up the sector are: the PhilSA; the UP-led STAMINA4Space Program, which succeeded with the much lauded PHL-Microsat project in developing the country’s capacities in small satellite technology; and the Department of Science and Technology Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI).
The briefing was composed of presentations by seven speakers from different corners of the space sector, each giving updates on the latest developments in their space-related R&D specialties.
The first presentation came from Engr. Harold Bryan Paler, Senior Science Research Specialist at the DOST-ASTI. Paler talked of the Philippine Earth Data Resources and Observation Center (PEDRO Center), which is the country’s ground monitoring station for satellites. The primary function of PEDRO is to monitor, give commands, and receive data from the project’s earth observation satellites,such as Diwata-2. It has independent stations with corresponding tracking antennae in all three major islands of the Philippines: in UP Diliman, Quezon City for Luzon; in Dumangas, Iloilo for the Visayas; and, in Davao City for Mindanao.These stations track the satellites from horizon to horizon. It also boasts of the Computing and Archiving Research Environment or COARE to store and process the often large-sized images that satellites produce.
The next two presentations strictly dealt with the many present and future ways that data from satellites can be applied to disaster risk reduction, and to agricultural and environmental efforts. Engr. Roel de la Cruz of the DOST-ASTI discussed how the DATOS project uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to translate satellite derived data into mapping and monitoring solutions for floods, land cover, seasonal crops, and calamities, among other applications. For example, using radar satellites that pass every 12 days, his team can determine the signatures that differentiate sugarcane from rice, corn, and other crops. Doing so, the team can now map and monitor plantations like these in the country and currently have agreements with government agencies to accomplish this feat.
Similarly, UP researcher Mark Jayson Felix of STAMINA4Space showed how optical imagery can be used to track changes in the environment. These space technology applications are used to track air and water quality, as well as to do econometric work. Included in this work is the surprising finding that higher levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in the air appeared to have a relationship with the number of COVID-19 fatalities in areas they studied. This, according to Felix, mirrored similar studies in Europe that found similar relationships that he hoped could be used to improve air quality without severely compromising the economy.
These series of presentations were punctuated by the unveiling of the Space Data Dashboard where one can view relevant research outputs from the various projects mapped on the web. The team displayed its capabilities by running over the dashboard’s COVID-19 pertinent functions to the media.
Moving from data applications to building the satellites of the future, Engr. Delburg Mitchao of STAMINA4Space discussed building actual satellites locally, in the past and the future. He discussed the locally developed modules developed for Diwata-2: the amateur radio payload, the attitude control unit, and the sun aspect sensor. He noted how the future of microsatellite development lies in creating the satellite “bus”, or the vehicle where these modules are contained, as well as a local onboard computer that interfaces with communication modules (UTACH) and aids in its control.
Similarly, Dr. Maricor Soriano of the UP Diliman Institute of Physics and head of the STAMINA4Space OPTIKAL project brought media members up to speed on her team’s current projects, including the development of two cameras for remote sensing. These are the Hyperspectral Imaging Camera (HYPIE) and the Multi-Application Line Imaging Camera-Monochrome and Tri-Linear Array (MALIC-MATA). The former will be carried by a drone and the latter by a satellite. Both are line scanning cameras that sweep over a scene just as a flatbed scanner might work on a smaller scale.
Lastly, Engr. Mary Ann Constante of the STAMINA4Space STeP-UP project detailed the steps her team were taking to make the space program more locally sustainable. Other than supporting Masters and PhD students and offering the first ever Nanosatellite Engineering track in the Masters of Engineering program at the UPD Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute (EEEI), the team also established a local chapter of an international space engineering consortium (UNISEC Global) that serves as a platform for local universities to join UP Diliman in space-related activities. They are also coordinating with local agencies and industries for space product manufacturing.
Wrapping up the entire event was Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, Jr., Director General of the PhilSA and faculty member of the UPD-EEEI. Talking about value creation in space S&T and its applications, Marciano cited the PhilSA’s vision: “a Filipino nation bridged, uplifted through the peaceful uses of outer space.” He clarified that while the PhilSA was being built from the ground up, it is not starting from scratch, since prior efforts have produced significant capabilities, trained personnel, and infrastructure that were on full display during the press briefing.
While drafting RA 11363 implementing rules and regulations kept Marciano and his team busy, he pointed out PhilSA’s two flagship initiatives: mobilizing satellite images and data for digital inclusion, economy, and government; and, the Build, Build, Build in Space (B3iS). As part of these initiatives, he mentioned plans for the creation of a locally made multispectral satellite and what will be the Diwata 3 microsatellite, among others.
“The mechanism for local know how transfer and retention shall be used to engage local companies in the manufacture test and supply chain for the B3iS satellites, which can help spur the development of the local space industry as a possible pathway for economic recovery post-COVID-19,” Marciano said.