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Reaching for the stars: Another step forward for Filipino space programme



Filipino scientists with the Diwata-1 micro-satellite at the Tsukuba Space Centre in Japan.

The Philippines is taking another step forward in the space race — not with an eye on the final frontier, but rather to keep an eye on the weather.

The government is preparing to launch a second micro-satellite to help create an early warning system for natural disasters such as typhoons.

According to the UN, the country is the fourth most disaster-prone nation in the world, with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes adding to frequent weather chaos.

Diwata (named after a mythical being, like a fairy), the country’s first 50kg satellite, has recently completed 4,000 orbits around the earth. By the end of this year, or early in 2018, it will be joined by Diwata-2, which is still being built.

The micro-satellite was launched at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in March, 2016, and deployed into space with help from NASA and Japanese scientists.

Joel Joseph Marciano, a professor of electrical and electronics engineering at the University of the Philippines, leads the Development of Philippine Scientific Earth Observation Microsatellite (PHL-Microsat) programme.

He said the programme was launched after storm Haiyan — Yolanda in the Philippines — devastated swathes of the country and killed more than 6,500 people in 2013.

“Typhoon Haiyan was a big wake-up call,” he said. “We thought hard about having remote sensing technology and scientific cameras and cable systems to help prepare for and mitigate devastation from disasters.

“The presence of environment sensing and earth observation technology would provide a faster turn-around of information-giving and intervention.”

His colleague Gay Jane Perez, a professor at the university’s Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology leads the PHL-Micosat’s Remote Sensing Product Development.

She said Diwata-1’s first mission had been to gather visual information about the destruction caused by typhoon Haima — Lawin in the Philippines — that struck last October. Images captured five days after the storm made landfall helped in the co-ordination of disaster relief and rehabilitation efforts.

Perez said: “The micro-satellite has a unique ability while in a high vantage point to do research and to get information that complements ground monitoring,” she said. “We can translate this research product into more useful information.”

Among the imaging tools it carries is a telescope for high resolution imaging, that can be used for assessing the extent of damage during disasters, a wide-field camera for observing large-scale weather patterns and a “multispectral imager” for monitoring bodies of water and vegetation.

As well as monitoring the weather, the equipment can also be used to provide information to farmers and fisherfolk, monitor forest cover, improve land zoning and police the nation’s territorial borders.

Diwata-1 passes over the Philippines four times a day, with six minutes per pass. It is expected to capture 3,600 images per day, which are sent to a ground station in Subic.

When the satellite was successfully deployed, the Philippines joined 70 other countries which, according to NASA, were operating government space programmes. A bill to create an official Philippines Space Agency is currently moving through the senate.

With these first baby steps into space, Marciano and Perez hope to spark an interest in space science among the nation’s youth. “We are now training students to develop capabilities to arrive at something like Diwata-1 in the future, perhaps with their own creative and better designs,” said Perez.