Myanmar is preparing to launch its very first Earth observation satellite, as part of a space program bringing together nine Asian countries intended to better arm themselves in the face of natural or climatic disasters.
The future Asian “super constellation” will be able to follow typhoons, seismic activity and ocean currents on the continent, and will also be able to provide information on the state of cultivated land or the progression of an epidemic.
This is the first space adventure for the poorest country in a consortium that also includes the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan. In the long term, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Mongolia will also join the consortium.
Made in Japan, the satellite was designed and developed in Burma in a space shuttle-shaped building at the center of a university campus housing the aerospace engineering school, near Meiktila, in the center of the country. This technology will help the Southeast Asian country to “take a leap forward” school Principal Kyi Thwin said.
Burma’s first contribution thus amounts to sixteen million American dollars, compared to more than one hundred million American dollars for a conventional satellite. The country does not have a launch base, but the satellites will nevertheless be partially operated from Burma, which will work in tandem with another control center based in Japan.
The objective of the Burmese-Japanese project
“Burma will be one of the main actors” in the project, told Yukihiro Takahashi, from the Japanese university of Hokkaido, who supports the Burmese engineers in their work. “What was big, heavy and expensive has become small, light and affordable” he says.
The goal is to launch around five micro-satellites per year, each weighing less than one hundred kilograms and having a lifespan of five years, until the consortium controls around fifty spacecraft placed in orbit.
According to Mr. Takahashi, the devices used to photograph the Earth are among the best on the market, capable of taking pictures of typhoons or disaster areas almost continuously, images which will then be modeled in 3D. This high-definition imagery will also help track agricultural land use and urban development, as well as detect deforestation or illegal mining.
Sinead O’Sullivan, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has advocated for years for emerging economies to invest in their own satellite technology, rather than depending on industry giants who sell their imagery at sky-high prices. “It is quite logical – politically, economically and socially – that these countries equip themselves to respond to the management of their own risks”.
A team of seven Burmese engineers, including Thu Thu Aung, will travel to Japan for the occasion. The 40-year-old engineer relishes the last few months before experiencing what seemed unattainable to her when, as a child, she thrilled in front of films about the heroes of the space conquest. “It is our dream to send a satellite into space, from our university”.
Japan blocked Myanmar’s first satellite, although the satellite was launched from Earth but was stored in the Japanese section of the International Space Station (ISS).
The satellite was sent by NASA on February 20, as a small part of a huge payload of provisions moved to the International Space Station, which is 400 km above Earth. It has since been kept by JAXA in Japan’s Kibō exploration module.
Why is Japan holding it?
Japan has always maintained close relations with Myanmar and is one of the country’s largest aid donors. While condemning the violence, he was not as harsh in his criticism of the coup as the United States of America and other Western countries that have imposed sanctions.
The contract with the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University did not mention that the satellite should not be used for military purposes, Hokkaido University officials said. However, the spacecraft’s data will be obtained by the Japanese university and will not be accessible to Burmese officials independently.
Human rights activists and some Japanese authorities feared that the cameras mounted in the satellite could be used for military purposes, for example, by the Burmese army, which held power on February 1, to filter the protesters. This is why the shipment had to wait briefly.
ASEAN countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia became active in space development and Myanmar did not want to lose the race, which is why a steering committee was established by the government of Myanmar in 2017 to set up a country-owned satellite system.
Myanmar has secured the right to use part of Intelsat 39, a communications satellite launched from Guyana in August 2019, for services in the country. Although it is not Myanmar’s own satellite, so they were planning to launch its first satellite in 2021 using Japanese technology.
Under the contract, Burmese engineers will build two satellites over five years as part of the initiative and gain experience in satellite design and data processing through a series of processes leading up to the launch.