TECH

Believe it or not, we have space technology in the Philippines

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Are Filipinos ready to go to outer space? This program thinks so. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The University of the Philippines has been traversing frontiers familiar and brand new with the opening of its University Laboratory for Small Satellites and Space Engineering Systems, referred to by the shorthand ULyS³Es (pronounced “Ulysses”). The interdisciplinary facility, which occupies two buildings in UP’s Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute (EEEI), continues and expands the efforts of the Philippine Microsat Program.

The name Ulysses carries connotations to Homer's “The Odyssey,” an allusion that is very much intentional — the program, after all, has pioneered the country’s first voyages into space. “We haven’t done anything like it,” says Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, Jr., acting director of DOST’s Advanced Science and Technology Institute (ASTI).

Launched in 2015, the initiative initially called PHL-Microsat is a partnership between UP and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), and is now known as the Sustained Support for Local Space Technology & Applications Mastery, Innovation and Advancement (STAMINA4Space). Through the program, scholars have been sent to Japan’s Hokkaido University and Tohoku University to obtain master’s degrees in aerospace engineering while working on microsatellites, three of which have been completed and launched into space so far: Diwata-1 and its successor Diwata-2, and a cube satellite called Maya-1.

Both Diwata-1 and Diwata-2 were built with the interest of observing the earth. The payload for Diwata-1 includes cameras and a high-precision telescope, making it useful for studying natural resources and disaster response and management. Through its images, for example, researches can assess damages caused by natural disasters.

The facade of the new ULyS³Es building, which was inaugurated on Aug. 31, 2019. Photo courtesy of STAMINA4SPACE

Diwata-2 can also be used to monitor the environment and natural resources, from agriculture and fisheries to forestry, according to Marciano. What makes it different is an amateur radio unit that can be used as a means of emergency communication in case disaster strikes, with a coverage area that extends to countries like Taiwan and Singapore. The control base in the university laboratory also has a decoder for morse code sent through the satellite’s signal.

As such, the findings from these microsatellites benefit not only scientists, but also the government and ordinary people, by letting us know about our local environment and serving as a map for possible courses of action to take in ways that are sustainable and long-term. “We contribute to a better understanding of our environment and that information is used to create better policies,” Marciano says.

“There are pressing problems that we need to solve now, but we also at the same time should not lose track of where we should be in the future.” — Dr. Joel Joseph Marciano, Jr.

“Communicating that to people is a challenge because the thing about space technology is, it sounds so esoteric,” he adds, especially in a third world country like the Philippines. “We’ve been conscious about how to communicate these outputs.” Plenty of the data is publicly available, published on blogs that make the science accessible and easy to understand. “That’s how we try to reach ordinary people, trying to communicate as effectively as we can to create more impact.”

He notes that while there is minimal skepticism about investing a budget and resources into the program, response from the general public has been supportive and interested. “People are fascinated by it,” he says. “They [seem to be] encouraged by the investments that we’re making in science and technology. Maybe it’s refreshing for some people that we have this longer term view for where we should be.”

The research lab inside the new building that is open for researchers from different fields. Photo courtesy of STAMINA4SPACE

A closer look at the anechoic chamber inside the new ULyS³Es building. It is a room that is echo-free and non-reflective. Photo courtesy of STAMINA4SPACE

“Maybe it takes some time before it’s felt,” Marciano allows, “but at some point we’ll look forward to it din and people can look back and say, ‘I’m really glad they invested in this, I’m really happy that we did that,’ because it opened more doors for our country. We’re participating in the global community of knowledge creation.”

“If you’re not going to invest in a longer term vision for our country, we might just stop dealing with things in the present,” he continues. “There are pressing problems that we need to solve now, but we also at the same time should not lose track of where we should be in the future.”

One of Marciano’s greatest hopes for the program is that it inspires and motivates more young people to go into science and technology. “We’re a very creative people, and we also want to foster ingenuity,” he explains. This, paired with a love of country, he adds, makes for a potent combination. “We want to direct that energy to solving problems. As we propose solutions, we want them to be science- and evidence-based, without losing our humanity in the process.”

“It’s part of our job to share this enthusiasm,” he says. “We’ve found that there are clearly many motivated people we can tap for this.” By building facilities like the university laboratory and welcoming them through tours and courses, they can be a part of the movement.

“Young people now have many options,” Marciano says, “but what’s good is that they’re also excited about new frontiers.”