Putting Nepal into orbit

A new generation of Nepali students will soon put two satellites in space

Photos: Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal

The sun and moon of the country’s double triangle flag are set to go into orbit soon in satellites designed by intrepid Nepali students.

This is the second small craft to be lifted into space under the Cube Satellite Project that is made possible by the non-profit Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

It has been four years since NepaliSat-1 was sent into orbit at about 400 km above the Earth. The two new satellites are ‘Danfe’ created by research fellows from Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal, and Munal built by high school students who they mentored.

Together, the twin satellites make up the Danfe and Munal Satellite System, named after Nepal’s national bird and its cousin, the Himalayan blood pheasant. The project is part of an effort to develop Nepal’s own in-house satellite capability, as well as train future space engineers.

“Besides technical know-how, we also need skilled designers, builders, and operators,” explains Rabindra Prasad Dhakal of NAST. “We are trying to create the next generation of scientists.”

The Cube Satellite is smaller and cheaper than traditional satellites, and were originally developed to help students gain engineering experience.  Antarikchya Pratisthan collaborated with Kathmandu University High School to create a Space System Laboratory which conducted a two-month long Cube Satellite Bootcamp.

After that, a nine member team of students from three government and one private high school in Chaukot of Kavre district got help from the Danfe team to design Munal, which will be a part of the world's first high school Cubesat constellation.

Shreeya Pradhan Shrestha, one of the students, proudly showed visitors including her brother and mother, her team’s creation during a recent visit. She herself was responsible for the printed circuit boards on Munal.

Shrestha is among nine science and management students working on the Munal, and they come from diverse backgrounds. Using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) the team designed five specialised circuit boards that will be installed in Munal.

"My computer skill was non-existent, my English was not very good, but the boot camp helped me grow and gain confidence,” says Sangeeta Mainali, a management student responsible for the antenna panel.

The two projects cost Rs10 million and will put two more Nepali cube satellites into Earth orbit. Danfe will be launched in collaboration with Thailand's International Institute of Space Technology for Economic Development (INSTED). Munal, on the other hand, will probably be launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in mid-2023.

Besides the Nepal flag, Munal will also carry photos of Mt Everest, Lumbini and Pashupati to illustrate Nepal’s natural heritage and cultural harmony. The students have also added a clip of the first recorded Nepali song as part of Munal’s Art and Culture Mission.

Danfe, on the other hand, includes a Climate Monitoring component to keep track of climate change impact on Nepal. It will be beaming signals to Ground Sensor Terminals with seismic, landslide, rainwater, and agricultural sensors to predict glacial lake outburst floods.

Nepal’s 2015 Earthquake is a good reminder that the country requires reliable early-warning systems that can provide data before and after disasters when all other systems are down. This feature in the Cube Satellites can be a cheaper alternative to Satellite communications channels.

"If NepaliSat-1 was level 1, the Danphe-Munal system is level 10," explains Sagun Prajapati of Sanima Bank, who volunteers as financial adviser to the project.

The project has elevated Cube Satellite technology literally to new heights. Along with the addition of climate monitoring, the research fellows have ensured higher processing speed and lower power consumption in the new-gen Cubes.

While NepaliSat-1 only took photos from space because of its limited payload, Munal and Danfe will take higher resolution images to also create a vegetation index for Nepal.

“From our experience with NepaliSat-1, we realised that software took up a lot of our time, so we focussed more on payload design and integration,” says Janardhan Silwal Danfe’s Project Manager.

There are many students who have tried to design a Cube satellite, but less than a third of them succeed. The Danfe team repurposed an open-source drone operating system called PX4 Autopilot, concentrating on testing and identifying failure points ahead of launch.

Because the Cube satellite is so small, the team also used microcontrollers from mobile phones to maximise space, integrating the onboard computer and electric power system on the same mission board.

Danfe and Munal Cube Satellites are likely to stay in orbit for a longer time than NepaliSat-1, which was supposed to be in orbit for only six months, but ended up being in space for over two years.

NAST hopes to encourage future Nepali space scientists with internships and merit-based scholarships. Besides high school and university students, Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal plans to promote astronomy and engineering to middle school students.

While testing its Ground Sensor Terminal in Melamchi, the team found that the majority of the children there wanted to become bus/dozer drivers.

Aabhas Maskey, the founder of Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal, says: “That prompted us to show the students that they can dream bigger, and we are giving them the chance to do that.”

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