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Philippines bids farewell to satellite that launched enviro policy into the space age

Diwata-1 was able to orbit the Earth around 22,643 times. Image courtesy of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) / National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

  • Diwata-1, the Philippines’ first microsatellite, has ended its four years in Earth orbit, burning up in the atmosphere on April 6.
  • The microsatellite captured more than 17,000 images of the Philippines, covering 38% of the country’s land area.
  • Diwata-1 ushered in an age of Earth satellite observation in the Philippines, contributing to science-based approaches to planning, conservation, risk management, and mapping.
  • Scientists involved in the program say they hope that analyses and reports culled from the country’s Earth observation technology can help in policymaking and decision-making.

MANILA — When reports came out that the microsatellite Diwata-1 of the Philippines had re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on April 6, ending its mission, it made headlines for being the first microsatellite designed, built and operated by Filipinos.

Diwata-1 spent four years in space capturing images that have helped pave the way for the use of space technology to analyze environmental change in the Philippines, contributing to science-based approaches to conservation, risk management, and nationwide mapping.

The microsatellite orbited the Earth 22,643 times and passed by the Philippines around 4,800 times. It captured 45,572 images of the Earth; Philippine images totaled 17,271. The images covered 114,087 square kilometers (44,049 square miles), or roughly 38% of the Philippines’ land area.

Diwata means goddess or deity in Filipino mythology, and diwata figures in tales are valued supernatural beings because they are guardians of nature. Diwata-1 embodied that role by keeping tabs over the Philippines with an array of high-tech imaging equipment.

The images they returned helped assess damages from natural disasters and monitor cultural heritage sites and natural resources. Photos for studies on changes in vegetation and ocean productivity were captured, even cloud patterns and weather disturbances.

Left: A visual representation of Diwata-1’s coverage of the Philippines during its four-year mission. Right: A derived NDVI image of Mount Pinatubo taken by the Diwata-1 Spaceborne Multispectral Imager sensor on April 19, 2017. The reddish patches represent the local flora in the area. Images courtesy of the STAMINA4Space Program.

Through these observation technologies, researchers of the Space Technology and Applications Mastery, Innovation and Advancement (STAMINA4Space) Program estimated the impact of typhoons, floods, landslides, and forest fires based on the extent of damages. Government agencies in the disaster risk management sector were able to identify and confirm damaged areas.

“The success of Diwata-1 is a demonstration of what a developing country like the Philippines can achieve if adequate resources and government support are given to science and technology,” Gay Jane Perez, STAMINA4Space Program Leader, told Mongabay.

Diwata-1 was launched on March 23, 2016, via the Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and released into orbit on April 27, 2016, from the International Space Station (ISS). After a four-year tour of the Earth, the last images of the Philippines it transmitted were of Samar province, taken on Dec. 28, 2019, while its final captures were made on Feb. 2, 2020.

The microsatellite was projected to remain in orbit for only 18 months, but it stayed up more than twice as long. Ground controllers last made contact with it on April 6 when it passed over Sendai, Japan, at an altitude close to Earth’s atmospheric boundary. Diwata-1 was presumed to have burned up in the atmosphere shortly after.

In its wake, it paved the way for the country’s aerospace program by providing hands-on training for researchers, scientists and engineers. It increased awareness about the use of space science and technology for environmental and biodiversity conservation measures for the benefit of not just lawmakers and policymakers but also the general public.

Aiding rehabilitation

The Philippines has long suffered from land degradation; it had 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of rainforests left as of 2010, less than a quarter of its total landmass. In Zambales and neighboring provinces, a major cause of land degradation was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, considered the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

The eruption spread a cloud of sulfur dioxide across the atmosphere that cooled the Earth’s temperature and gave prominence to the geoengineering theory of tackling global warming by simulating such a phenomenon. But it also displaced 250,000 people and degraded 96,200 hectares (238,000 acres) of agricultural land and 18,000 hectares (44,500 acres) of forest land. Areas covered in volcanic debris “will be out of use for years to come,” the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

A mosaicked true-color Spaceborne Multispectral Imager (SMI) capture of Palawan province from Diwata-1 taken on Dec. 21, 2016. Image courtesy of the STAMINA4Space Program.

But Diwata-1 images taken in 2017 showed signs of recovery in this landscape: Areas that in 1992 exhibited little or no indication of vegetation growth now showed up patches of plants flourishing. That could point to the reforestation efforts by the private and public sectors through the government’s National Greening Program, which has reforested 160 hectares (395 acres) from 2011 to 2017.

The satellite also sent back data on land cover and ocean productivity. A photo of Metro Manila showed an overcrowded habitat, while a photo of the archipelagic province of Palawan, a tourism hotspot, reflected tropical rainforests, small islands, summits, and ridges.

Other images helped determine where land with vegetation cover had been converted to commercial, residential or mining sites. Images of Palawan and Pangasinan provinces and major bodies of water like Laguna de Bay and Manila Bay helped with assessments of sedimentation, turbidity and water pollution.

These studies, findings and analyses using Diwata-1 images are on a blog and all images are available for free on a distribution site, making space tech accessible to the public.

From disasters to natural resource inventory

The satellite also tracked cloud patterns and weather disturbances, providing an extra eye in the sky for the national weather bureau, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAG-ASA).

Scientific Reports, the international open access journal of Nature Research, published a study that underlined the cost-effective capacity of Diwata-1 in estimating cloud-top heights — the distance between the topmost part of a cloud and the Earth’s surface, and a crucial parameter in weather forecasting. A high rate of cloud vertical growth usually indicates torrential rainfall and thunderstorms.

On Jan. 27, 2020, Diwata-2 took an image of Taal Volcano in Batangas and its surrounding areas after the volcano’s magmatic eruption. The areas shaded in gray were affected by the ashfall. Image courtesy of the STAMINA4Space Program.

Researcher Mark Jayson Felix from the STAMINA4Space Program said Diwata-1 also complemented the European Space Agency’s Sentinel network of Earth-imaging satellites. The Philippines is partnering with the European Union’s Copernicus program to further the use of Sentinel images for Earth observation.

“We see the value of harnessing space science and technology, and its application in improving localized data needed for climate change and disaster management,” lawmaker Loren Legarda said in a statement. “With our very own satellites, we are now able to capture satellite data and target a particular location in our country, allowing us further to understand our vulnerabilities as a nation, especially in light of the intensifying effects of climate change.”

The Department of Science and Technology (DOST), which helped build Diwata-1, has made much progress since the 2016 launch. Its Advanced Science and Technology Institute is part of the ongoing initiative called Geospatial Information Management and Analysis Project for Hazards and Risk Assessment in the Philippines (GeoRiskPH), which identifies risk areas and prepares localized hazard maps.

Another government agency, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), is using satellite technology to manage, map, and assess the country’s resources and update the natural resource inventory. The Department of Budget and Management hopes to use microsatellite images to monitor the progress of big-ticket public infrastructure projects.

Filipino Diwata engineers Gerwin Guba, Harold Bryan Paler, Kaye Kristine Vergel, Benjamin Jonah Magallon (sitting), and Delburg Mitchao with Tetsuro Ishida of Hokkaido University, Toshinori Kuwahara and Yuji Sakamoto of Tohoku University, and a Japanese student (standing). Image courtesy of the STAMINA4Space Program.

With the experience gained from developing and operating Diwata-1, the Philippines was able to launch two more satellites in 2018, Maya-1 and Diwata-2. The latter has since taken more than 3,900 images around the world, with Philippine images amounting to 2,290; these images helped determine new urban areas in Rizal province, track Typhoon Kammuri last December, and showed the extent of ashfall from the Taal Volcano eruption in January.

“We are more equipped to embark on missions that will provide operational quality data, while continuously fostering space technology innovation and localization,” Perez said. “With advances in remote-sensing techniques and data science, we are looking forward to enhanced utilization of satellite-derived information across various agencies for policymaking and decision-making.”

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Banner image of the Diwata-1, which was the size of an average Filipino “balikbayan box,” a corrugated box expatriates fill in with items and ship home for relatives. In its 4-year lifespan, Diwata-1 was able to orbit the Earth around 22,643 times. Image courtesy of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) / National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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