India-Bhutan SAT to remain in orbit for 6-8 months

ISRO’s PSLV-C54 launched on 26 November from Sriharikota, India. (Pic: ISRO)


On 26 November this year, Bhutan made yet another milestone by launching its second nanosatellite into the orbit with an approximate lifespan of about 6-8 months.

The first ever joint satellite developed by India and Bhutan was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C54 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

The Bhutanese team and engineers behind the India-Bhutan SAT said if the situation is favourable, the satellite could stay in orbit for more than a year. One of the reasons the life of the satellite is short is that they are placed in an orbit very close to earth that it returns to the earth’s atmosphere within a definite period of time naturally.

This is also in compliance with the internationally agreed regulations that require all satellites placed in a low earth orbit to deorbit within 25 years.

The Earth Observation Satellite-03 (EOS-3) known as OCEANSAT-3 was also launched by ISRO’s PSLV-C54 on its final mission of the year.

Eight nanosatellites, including India-Bhutan satellite was launched along with Oceansat-3.

The cube sat is 30 centimetres and weighs 15 kilograms. It will revolve around Bhutan’s surface for at least twice or thrice per day as part of the collaborative nanosatellite.

The Bhutanese team consists of secondary payload development, remote sensing group and ground stations.

Secondary payload development team focused on the design and development of the secondary payload and Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) digipeater. The team actively engaged with the ISRO engineers and scientists, and spent a lot of time in ISRO centres performing various tests on the payload and satellite.

While the remote sensing group will receive the images from the primary payload of the joint satellite, the images will be shared with key government agencies who will then use it towards achieving their respective mandates.

Four agencies have been identified so far who will be utilising the satellite data. Department of Geology and Mines will use it for landslide inventory mapping, Department of Human Settlement will use it for urban settlement mapping, Department of Forests and Park Services will use it for forest coverage mapping while the Department of Renewable Energy will use it for studying rooftop solar power potential in Bhutan.

On the other hand, the ground station team focused on development of the ground stations in Bhutan. 5 Amateur radio ground stations have been established in five colleges under Royal University of Bhutan for the secondary payload operations and they are in process of setting up a S-band receiver station which will be used to store and receive the image data from the satellite.

The ground stations have the capability to track and communicate with amateur radio satellites in low earth orbit. Thus, the students of the five colleges will be able to familiarise themselves in satellite tracking and communications. Similar ground station is also being set up at Druk Gyalpo’s Institute in Pangbisa, Paro.

The project took about 2 years for implementation. While the announcement was made in 2019 during PM Modi’s state visit to Bhutan, the COVID pandemic hampered the progress. The actual implementation started by the beginning of 2021.

The joint satellite project is the successor to the BHUTAN-1 project, which was implemented as a university project in Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan. With the experience and knowledge gained from the first project, the joint satellite project was undertaken.

Before the start of the joint project, the ISRO team also provided a 2 month long theoretical training and facility familiarisation for four Bhutanese engineers.

The Bhutanese team focused on the design and testing of the secondary payload, an APRS digipeater. In the process, the team faced few technical glitches which risked the mission. But these were overcome after consulting ISRO experts.

The team said, “Continuous discussions, more testing and study of the issues, and research were conducted to address the challenges.”

For the satellite itself, the expenses were less than Nu 1 million. “Of course, it is due to the fact that ISRO helped us in fabrication of the secondary payload that our engineers designed and let us use their testing facilities,” the Bhutanese satellite team said.

The team added that all of the devices and the ground stations that are currently being established will also be used for future satellite development and operations. Such ground stations will be able to extend support to other nations in tracking and operations of their satellites as well. For these activities, around Nu 20 million has been incurred. 

The primary objective of this project is the capacity development of Bhutanese engineers. Through this project and the BHUTAN-1 project, the team said that they are gearing towards in-house satellite development.

The Bhutanese team and their insight

Although there are various organization that have come into play, the historic milestone is attributed to the core member of seven engineers and one ICT officers from Bhutan who played a significant role in the successful launch of the joint satellite.

According to the team, the space initiative in Bhutan started with His Majesty’s vision to harness the benefits of space technology to improve the life of the citizens and generate more interest among the youths in taking up STEM education.

The team is grateful to the government of India and ISRO for their support in implementing the joint satellite project. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Information and Communication has played a key role towards the success of this project.

“We are still in the learning phase, so the team will focus on enhancing the knowledge gained so far. And the best way of doing that is by developing more satellites.”

The team added that what they are doing now is building the foundation and merely showing the way for the younger generation of Bhutan so that they could do wonders for the country. “Nevertheless, as we have achieved some momentum now, we will continue to enhance our capabilities in space science and technology.”