By May this year, Bhutan’s first satellite called BHUTAN-1, a CubeSat (nano-satellite) is expected to be in space.

Almost 90 percent of the works on the satellite has been completed.

Four Bhutanese engineers are spearheading the country’s first venture into space technology at the Kyushu Institute of Technology (KyuTech) in Japan.

Of the four, Pooja Lepcha joined the team in October last year. She is currently undergoing her masters programme at the institute through a post-graduate study on Nano-Satellite Technology scholarship offered by the institute.

Under the BIRDS-2 Project that began in November 2016, the engineers along with participants from the Philippines and Malaysia will build three 1U (10*10*10 cm) CubeSat.

The CubeSat will have five key missions, which includes a camera mission that will take images of each member nation of the project from space, an automatic packet reporting system digipeater and store and forward mission which is a message relaying system for amateur users.

A Single Event Latch-up (SEL) to study the effect of radiation from space on small satellites at low earth orbit; a GPS module that will demonstrate the operation of commercially available low power module in space; and an Anisotropic Magneto Resistor Magnetometer (AMR-MM) to measure the magnetic field intensity on orbit to compare that with the readings taken on earth will make the rest of the mission.

With the finalisation of the missions by December 2016, the team began designing and testing the design by March last year. After verifying the functions of each sub-system, the team built the first Engineering Model (EM-1) of the satellite in June. By October, the EM-2 was completed and works on developing the Flight Module (FM) began.

One of the Bhutanese members, Kiran Kumar Pradhan said that the hardware of the FM is ready with only few tests to be performed on it.  “The major focus now is on the software of the satellite,” he said, adding that communications test is being performed to check the full functionality of the satellite.

Kiran Kumar Pradhan said the satellite is scheduled to be delivered to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) by March this year.

Although there is no fixed date for the launch of the satellite, it was learned that the satellite would be launched along with the supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts would then release the satellite from the ISS. The satellite is expected to be launched in May.

Another member, Cheki Dorji, said that the first satellite would pave the path for space technology in Bhutan. “Space involvement has always been associated with rich and developed countries and considered to be a far dream,” he said. “But with the country’s first satellite in orbit, it would be proven that no dream is too big for anyone.”

He said that the venture would also be a first step towards the demonstration of addressing local issues using satellites. “Once the satellite is in its orbit, we can do operations from the ground stations. The satellite can be used to relay data from remote hydro-meteorological stations to the data centre. For application missions, we expect to get an image of our country taken from around 400km in space.”

“The present satellite project focuses on capacity development for space science and technology hence, it will help bring the country’s focus towards space science and technology,” said Yeshey Choden, the third member of the team. “Satellite technology has the potential to enhance socioeconomic development starting from agriculture to disaster response and natural resources management.”

“What we achieve here is for the people and the country,” Kiran Kumar Pradhan said. “With this project, we expect to make a mark of our country in this industry.”

Once launched, the satellite will operate in a low altitude of about 500km to 1,500km. With the help of two high-end cameras fitted on the satellite, it will take high-quality photographs of the country.

In an earlier interview in 2016, the Prime Minister had said that a space agency will also be set up with the information and communications ministry.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay had said that the vision for the country’s first satellite comes from His Majesty The King.

Younten Tshedup