Space science has advanced so much since the former Soviet’s satellite named Sputnik. Space has today become widely accessible. Building a satellite is no more rocket science.
Bhutan too is building its own satellite.
To most Bhutanese satellite and space were always what geeks at NASA and ISRO did and do. The fact is, with cost of building satellites becoming cheaper, even an undergraduate can build a satellite today.
The space programme in the country began with the vision of His Majesty The King.
Bhutan-1 country’s first satellite, an educational CubeSat satellite was launched in space on August 10, 2019 by four engineers with the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) as part of their master’s degree in Japan under BIRDS-2 project.
This is Bhutan’s second venture into space.
In the Ministry of Information and Communications’ compound, a board fixed with many small components and colourful wires connect to each other in the shape of an arch.
Kiran Kumar Pradhan, deputy executive engineer with DITT, says it is the first prototype of the joint satellite’s payload, called breadboard model. “ The first prototype is a success.”
Payload is what performs the function desired by the satellite. For the joint satellite programme with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Bhutanese are building secondary payload called text message repeating payload, operating in amateur frequency band. Simply put, this allows communication with the satellite once in space from ground station on earth.
The joint satellite of 30 cubic centimetres weighing about 15kg will take pictures of earth and allow wireless communication. The satellite will rove over Bhutan at least two or three times a day.
Deputy executive engineer Cheki Dorji and Karma Yuden, a senior ICT officer, including Kiran are developing the payload of joint satellite with ISRO-India. A lecturer from College of Science and Technology was also involved in the initial stage.
What does it take to build a satellite?
Kiran said one could procure digital components from DigiKey Electronics, a shopping platform for electoral parts, and exploring the internet was enough to learn and have first hands-on experience in building a satellite. “ We are also in constant touch with ISRO and our Professors in Japan.”
Getting to space is an interdisciplinary job and it requires people with sound knowledge in Economics, Mathematics and Biology, among others.
Karma Yuden has a degree in electronics and her knowledge comes handy in circuit building a satellite that consists of many electrical systems.
Cheki Dorji has a degree in civil engineering. Learning electronics was a challenge for him. He said compared with BHUTAN-1, building the payload with experience was much easier.
Is building a satellite really easy?
To assemble furniture with help of a manual and screw driver would work but to assemble the parts of satellite is a little more complicated. That’s the fact.
The design and components have to ensure it survives in space in extreme fluctuations in temperature, dust, oxygen-free zone, and zero gravity. Once a satellite is in space, it is a do or die.
The satellite has to undergo various stages of test before it is approved for use in space, but no matter how many times a satellite is tested it does not ensure 100 percent survival rate.
Testing increases the probability of the satellite’s survival and the satellite functions.
After a design is approved, the first prototype is built to check whether the theoretical design actually works practically.
To call the first prototype a success, more than a month of testing is done by inducing space environment in terms of reducing signal strength with respect to space.
The team, when they can’t figure out what was wrong when circuits did not work, would explore internet, consult experts from ISRO and Professors in Japan. They would call for a break but would never give up.
The team is making sure their prototype integrates well with the other sub-systems of the satellite and also works well in space.
Cheki said Bhutan does not have a proper lab. “ Real testing in artificial space environment will begin in ISRO with our second prototype called engineering model.”
How a prototype is tested?
There are three boards and power is switched on, which passes 15 volt of energy. The first board receives 15 volts of energy and disseminate five-volt energy to the other two boards.
On the second board, there are three LED lights. Yellow LED light beacons at a certain interval, indicating the system is alive and working. When red LED blinks it means the system is transmitting signals and when green light blinks mean the system is receiving messages from the ground station.
Cheki Dorji said that the first prototype is a success. However, there is a long way to go.
It has been months since they developed the first prototype.
The team is working on building the second prototype, called “engineering model” which requires fabrication that is not available in Bhutan.
The team is reviewing with ISRO to fabricate the engineering model.
If the testing of the engineering model is successful, then the same design will be replicated and named the flight model, which will go into the satellite.
Why venture into space?
The benefits of satellite information is limitless. It can study the quality of soil, type of vegetation, feasibility of building hydropower and weather forecast, among others.
One of the crucial satellite information which would help Bhutan is studying glaciers and the dangers of GLOF. There are about 700 glaciers in Bhutan.
Executive geologist with Cryosphere Services Division ( CSD), Phuntsho Tshering, said that it was crucial to study how glaciers are receding. “ If we have earth observation satellite of our own, we can study the glacier and their threats.”
CSD currently relies on free images from satellites to study glaciers. The latest study of glaciers was done between 2016 and 2018.
National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology ( NCHM) spends between USD 14,000 and USD 15,000 for satellite information. NCHM has set early warning system in three major river basins in Bhutan—Punatsangchhu, Mangdechhu, and Chamkharchhu.
Edited by Jigme Wangchuk