Monday, February 25, 2008

Who will build the first Filipino satellite?

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer)

CURRENTLY STREAKING THROUGH SPACE at thousands of kilometers per hour is one of the smallest satellites placed into orbit.

This small wonder is a "cube satellite" (CubeSat) with a size of only 10cm x 10cm x 10cm (a family size box of Safeguard soap is exactly 10cm long), and weighing just 995 grams. It completes a revolution of the Earth every 90 minutes and is sending signals to its controllers saying it's alive and well in the brutal environment of space.

What's amazing about this satellite is not its puny size. There are other CubeSats with the same dimensions orbiting the Earth.

What's amazing is that this satellite was made in Colombia. What's more amazing is that it was built by students from a Colombian university.

The "pico-satellite" Libertad-1 (Freedom-1) is Colombia's first satellite. It was launched into orbit along with 15 other satellites by a Russian Dnepr rocket last April 17 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the world's oldest and largest launch facility. A pico-satellite is defined as a miniaturized satellite weighing less than one kilogram.


Science and satellites aren't exactly the first things that pop into one's mind when one hears the word, Colombia. Libertad-1, apart from making history for Colombia, is also helping other people think about Colombia in another, more positive way.

The students from the Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogota, capital of Colombia, who built Libertad-1 are understandably overjoyed at their success.

If Colombia can build its first satellite, can the second be far behind? And who will be Colombia's first astronaut?

Placed into orbit along with Libertad-1 were seven other miniaturized satellites built by students from U.S. universities. The U.S. CubeSats were made by California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly), Stanford University and the University of Louisiana.

The U.S. has a CubeSat Project that creates launch opportunities for universities previously unable to access space. More than 60 universities and high schools are participating in the CubeSat Project.

The CubeSat Project is free and is open to all universities and institutions. Any educational institution can join the project by following three steps on the CubeSat Program website.

Norway's first in-orbit satellite, NCUBE-2, was a CubeSat built by Norwegian students and orbited in 2005. NCUBE-2 monitored the movement of ships along the Norwegian coast and the movement of reindeer in southern Norway.

NCUBE-2 was supported by Europe's own CubeSat program. In 2000, the European Space Agency (ESA) wanted to get more European students involved in space travel technology and space science.

It launched the "Student Space Exploration and Technology Initiative" that soon involved more than 400 students from 23 different European universities in 14 countries in making satellites. One of these satellites was NCUBE-2.


Because of the many educational institutions involved in making them, CubeSats are also known as Student Satellites or StudentSats.

Now, that Pinoys have conquered Mt. Everest, why don't we now try to conquer the highest place in this planet--Space--by building the first homegrown Pinoy satellite?

If Colombian students can build their country's first satellite, surely Filipino students can also build this country's first homegrown satellite.

Agila-1 (now an orbiting derelict) and Agila-2 don't count as Pinoy homegrown satellites since they were built by foreign countries.

Miniaturized satellites such as CubeSats are giving countries that can't spend millions of dollars on traditional satellites the chance to use space to advance their national interests. It cost the Norwegians $30,000 to launch NCUBE-2 on board a Russian rocket.

We can enlist the help of the Americans, the Europeans or the Russians in making and launching the first Pinoy satellite. We have the brainpower. Students from our universities and colleges win awards writing gaming software and building dancing robots.

Our students can pool their brainpower to build the first Filipino satellite.

Our first homegrown CubeSat doesn't need to accomplish anything fancy such as taking high-resolution photographs. Colombia's Libertad-1 was built to send signals and monitor space temperature,

The purpose of the Pinoy CubeSat building exercise is to build and orbit a CubeSat. The team experience of building a satellite is the main reward. Giving the Philippines links to the world's satellite industry will also be a valuable advantage.

Our first homegrown satellite can simply play "Lupang Hinirang" as it passes over the Philippines. That alone would make it successful--and make us proud to be Pinoys.

Or it can do something more useful such as testing sensors and equipment for the second, but more sophisticated, Pinoy homegrown CubeSat.

But we've got to start now. And if this government doesn't want to do it, then Pinoy students must lead the way.

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