Developing national capacity in space technologies- Eng. (Dr.) Sanath Panawennage | Daily News
Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies:

Developing national capacity in space technologies- Eng. (Dr.) Sanath Panawennage

On July 20, 1969, the American astronaut Neil Armstrong put his foot down on the surface of the moon and famously declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It has been over 50 years now, and men have now ventured out into space on many occasions. More importantly, the ensemble of advanced technologies collectively referred to as space technology, which make possible the design, development, launch, and in-orbit operation of satellites and other spacecraft, have had in this process a profound transformation in many facets of the lives of all of us—the earthly beings.

You may well recall the first-ever Satellite to be built by Sri Lanka and launched in 2019, the Nano-Satellite RAAVANA-1, which was a collaborative project between the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies (ACCIMT) of Sri Lanka and the Kyushu Institute of Technology (Kyutech) of Japan, and the second, the advanced Nano-Satellite KITSUNE, launched in 2022, as a five-party research mission between Kyutech, ACCIMT, and three other partners, namely Addnics Corp and Harada Seiki of Japan, and Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. The latest outcome of the ACCIMT-Kyutech space-technology collaboration venture, the Nano-Satellite BIRDS-X, primarily a communication-technology research mission, is scheduled to be launched to orbit in mid-2024.

Today, the Daily News speaks to the Director General and CEO, Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies Eng. (Dr.) Sanath Panawennage, on how Sri Lanka is going about in its efforts to acquire and develop its national capacity in space technologies.

The Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies is the premier public research institute in the country, specializing in electronics, communications, robotics and IT, and very specially in Space Technologies. Besides its broader mandate for ‘accelerating the introduction of modern technologies to the country’, the institute plays a special role as Sri Lanka’s national agency for space-technology capacity-development and international liaison on outer-space affairs.

Dr. Sanath Panawennage—an Electronic and Telecommunication Engineer of the highest professional standing (FIESL) and a PhD in Space Policy—is the founder of Sri Lanka’s programme for acquisition and development of the country’s national capacity in space technologies; and he has been leading the team of Sri Lankan engineers involved in each of the above three collaborative Nano-Satellite projects, RAAVANA-1, KITSUNE, and BIRDS-X, as the Principle Investigator on the Sri Lankan side, having created the above opportunities for Sri Lanka through a highly innovative strategic approach.

“The Arthur C. Clarke Institute is primarily a public research institution in modern technologies, and we conduct research and development activities, training programmes on highly specialized niches of modern technology, and we also provide consultancy services to the industry, in our areas of specialization. When it comes to the domain of space, we have a very special role. We are entrusted with the mandate of developing national capabilities in the area of space technologies, and also functioning as Sri Lanka’s national agency for international liaison in outer-space affairs.

At the moment Sri Lanka does not have a specialized space agency, perhaps to be so-called the ‘National Space Agency of Sri Lanka’, simply because, in Sri Lanka, we do not have such a big space programme to call for such a separate agency. So we, at the ACCIMT, are working as the national space agency in the making, and we are working with a vision to enable evolution of such an entity in due course. Currently, we are in the very early stages,” said Dr. Panawennage.

In 2014, the institute identified ‘space’ as an area that it could venture into, contrary to the popular belief that space was a frontier beyond their reach. They realized there were opportunities for them to successfully venture in.

“Among the developing countries, we were very quick to identify the tangible opportunities that would be possibly brought about by a potential revolutionary development in the field of Nano-Satellites. By around 2011/2012, going by what was then visible as the early signs of a possible global boom in Nano-Satellites over the next decade, we knew this would potentially provide a decisive opportunity for countries who were desirous of newly entering into the space domain. Globally, all countries, regardless of their degree of economic strength and technological advancement, are interested in how to use ‘outer-space’ for their earthly needs’, in other words, how to mobilize satellite-derived data and other tools and applications, derived through satellites positioned in outer space, in many spheres of human activity from navigation to agriculture, from communication to urban planning, from disaster management to natural resource management, and from education to governance”, he said.

Much of the early and decisive developments in space technology was the result of the ‘Space Race’ that was there between the United States and the Soviet Union. Dr. Panawennage pointed out that most of the decisive breakthrough developments of space technology actually happened during the time of the Cold War. “As you know the arms race between the USA and Soviet Union manifested for the major part in the form of a Space Race. After that countries like France, Germany, UK, Canada, Japan, China and India came on board. Now, of course, there are several other relatively newly-emerged space-faring nations such as Israel, South Korea, Iran and North Korea with substantial advanced technology capabilities”.

Initially, the technology was largely confined to countries with both scientific advancement and economic capacity to engage in space activities. Not only was the technology expensive, but also exclusive—confined to those few technologically advanced nations, with a major proportion of applications in the military, rather than civilian domain.

“Then the things started to change. The global supply chains started to change and other countries showed interest in this area. Then came the advent of Nano-Satellites. Now Nano-Satellites are very small satellites. They are smaller in size and therefore they are lower in cost. They are affordable. But technically, they have all the vital sub systems of a major satellite. Nano-Satellites provided an important opportunity for the new players/countries who wanted to come on board and enter the domain, because they were cheap to manufacture and cheap to launch. This does not mean that Nano-Satellites can essentially do what a normal big satellite can do. If a single big complex satellite can carry out so many functions, a constellation of Nano-Satellites in some cases can effectively carry out one or two of those functions. But remember at a small fraction of the cost. Nano-Satellites have certainly provided a platform or a launching pad for the countries who wanted to come on board and start their own space-technology capacity-development activities, within their means. Nano-Satellites in a way have done a great deal to democratize space” explained Dr. Panawennage.

The Arthur C. Clarke Institute was pretty early to recognize the wave that would surge in the Nano-Satellite domain. “In today’s quest for acquiring advanced technological capabilities, in the efforts made by many countries to transform their economies into knowledge-based advanced technology-led economies, Space Technology plays a vital role. In Sri Lanka we have identified space as a vital technology in our march towards attaining the goal of becoming a developed country, in a number of vital policy and strategy documents on science and technology development.

In mid-2014, we, the ACCIMT, formulated a proposal and submitted it to the Government. It was called the “Program for Acquisition and Development of National Capacity in Space Technology”. Knowing that the technology was not only expensive but was also largely in the hands of an exclusive league of economically and technologically advanced nations, the key strategy that we were proposing was to undertake multiple Nano-Satellite development projects in technology-collaboration with some agencies of those advanced spacefaring countries. We were not in a position to go straightaway to build big satellites. It was too expensive.”

Dr. Panawennage added that what they have made use of, on the major part, are the strategic relationships that they have developed with the national space agencies and other leading space-specialized institutions and universities of several leading spacefaring nations, as well as the international platforms for space cooperation.

“It is about building strategic relationships and mobilizing their outcomes in effective combinations. We trained 17 engineers to start with, at Samara Aerospace University in Russia. That was our first exposure to Space Engineering. Then we formulated and embarked upon a project with Kyutech Japan, mobilizing contributions from some other international partners as well, which resulted in developing the Nano-Satellite RAAVANA-1. That was launched in 2019, and was successfully orbiting the earth for 27 months, much beyond its expected life span, successfully accomplishing all of its five research missions on-board. Our second experiment with Nano-Satellites was KITSUNE, the 6U advanced Nano-Satellite that was undertaken as a five-partite technology collaboration project. KITSUNE, having launched in to the same ISS orbit at an altitude of 400km above the earth, also successfully accomplished its multiple research missions, generating a large volume of in-orbit research data, vital in future missions. Those two previous projects have given a valuable opportunity for our engineers to get comprehensive exposure in the complete cycle of design, development, construction, testing, launching and in orbit operation of Nano-Satellites,” he added.

The third project, Nano-Satellite BIRDS-X, that they have embarked upon as a bi-lateral technology collaboration project with the Japanese collaborator, Kyutech, is currently in progress, and the satellite is expected to be launched in mid-2024. This is primarily a research satellite that will involve several in-orbit research missions on communication-technologies.

“Once again, we have come on board with no capital expenditure to Sri Lanka, purely on the basis of the strategic and technological contributions that we make to the project. Once again we have a team of seven ACCIMT engineers working on the project, led by myself as the Principal Investigator on the Sri Lankan side. Very importantly we have already finished developing, here in Sri Lanka at the ACCIMT, the major communication payload to be used on-board the satellite, a UHF transceiver, designed by research engineer Tharindu Dayaratne. The other ACCIMT members of the project team are: Eng. (Ms.) Kamani Ediriweera, Eng. Kavindra Jayewardene, Research Engineers Kaveendra Sampath, Thilina Bandara, and Uditha Gayan. The ACCIMT engineers will work at Kyutech laboratories for a cumulative period of 12 engineer-months, on various aspects of development and testing work of the satellite, while in the meantime sharpening their technical competencies in space engineering.

The level of national capacity that Sri Lanka has succeeded in acquiring and developing in this domain of advanced technology, which on the one hand is vital in enhancing the overall base of advanced technological capabilities of the country, and on the other hand is both ‘expensive’ and ‘exclusive’, Dr. Panawennage said ‘well we consider ourselves to be very lucky to have come to this standard by spending only a very small fraction of capital expenditure that many recent entrants to the space domain would have typically spent in reaching the standard that we have reached by now—though it obviously represents only a few steps of a long journey ahead. The good international relationships we have built in the area of international cooperation in space, and our ability to harmoniously mobilize them in effective combinations has been the key.”

Something pertinent to mention here is that Eng. (Dr.) Sanath Panawennage has been playing a prominent leadership role in multiple intergovernmental platforms for international cooperation on space technology and applications, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, over the past 12 years. He was elected and functioned as the Chairman of the 35-nation Intergovernmental Consultative Committee (ICC) on the Regional Space Applications Programme (RESAP) of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) for 5 sessions and as its Vice-Chairman for another 4 sessions. He also functioned as the Co-Chair of the (Intergovernmental) Drafting Committee that formulated the ‘Asia-Pacific Plan of Action on Space Applications for Sustainable Development 2018-2030’, the blueprint of the flagship UN programme on Space for Asia and the Pacific, which was adopted by all 53 member states of the UNESCAP in 2019.

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