Reaching for The Stars
Bhutan’s dark and unpolluted skies offer stargazers pure delight. But for generations, they have also been a source of knowledge. As Bhutan celebrates the successful launch of its most ambitious satellite yet, its astronomers and astrologers alike are exploring new frontiers of understanding.
Several years ago, Yeshey Choden found herself at a crossroads. Two vastly different career paths, both involving Bhutan’s star-scattered skies, stretched before her. The route she chose has since put her at the forefront of Bhutan’s burgeoning space programme, spearheading huge technological achievements for the kingdom and nurturing a new generation of young scientists. As an engineer for the Division of Telecom and Space (DoTS) in the Ministry of Information and Communications’ Department of IT and Telecom, she embodies the nation’s promise and ambition: tech-savvy, internationally minded and determined to shape the future.
The space programme was founded by His Majesty the King to fulfil this ambition. “[His Majesty] envisions that we should harness space science and technology for the benefit of everyone on Earth, and use space to inspire the younger generation,” she explains. The space programme is designed to encourage Bhutan’s youth to “think beyond our limits – and to reach for the stars”.
The history of looking to the stars is long and fundamental to the kingdom’s unfolding story, albeit in a very different way. For centuries, astrologers have been studying, considering and consulting the stars to inform decisions on everything from which colour car to purchase to government policy. In a nation that’s now developing its own high-tech space programme, the age-old practice of astrology might seem at odds with modernity. But here in Bhutan, these equally esteemed endeavours coexist effortlessly.
Lift-off for Bhutan’s space programme
Reaching for the stars isn’t just a catchphrase of Yeshey’s: it’s also her day job. After receiving a degree in civil engineering from the National University of Singapore (on a scholarship awarded by His Majesty), she was working in the Ministry of Information and Communications when, in 2016, the Department of Telecom and Space (DoTS) first established its satellite programme. “There was this capacity-development project for space science and technology happening for the first time in Bhutan,” she says, “and my engineering background qualified me to be a part of the team.”
The team in question was part of the Birds initiative, a multinational project supporting countries to build and launch their first satellite. Bhutan, along with the Philippines and Malaysia, was invited to Kyushu Institute of Technology (KIT) in Japan to develop its own cube satellite. For Yeshey, who gained her Masters in space engineering while at KIT, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
The result was the CubeSat, measuring 10cm³ and weighing just 1kg. It was fitted with GPS, sensors and a text message system for amateur radio operators. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (which launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral base) carried it into space and, after docking at the International Space Station, launched CubeSat on August 10th 2018. Yeshey and her fellow engineers estimated it might survive in orbit for six to nine months – but Bhutan’s first satellite lasted for more than two years, circling Earth more than 13,000 times. “Most of the parts were commercial, off-the-shelf components, which we bought online,” says Yeshey. “They weren't really space-graded materials; it was very low cost. So that [lifespan] was quite amazing.”
Small satellite, big moment
CubeSat’s launch – and subsequent success – was also amazing for the kingdom. “Although the satellite was very small in size, it had huge significance for the whole country,” says Yeshey. “This project literally transformed our country from a non-spacefaring nation to a spacefaring one. It was a landmark achievement for every single one of us.”
To borrow the words of a fellow space-goer, it’s one giant leap for Bhutan – yet it was also just the beginning. For Yeshey and her colleagues, the focus is on laying the foundations of a long-term space programme. Space science and technology is now on the physics curriculum for students in years 9 to 12. DoTS is also building connections with academics at home and abroad, and hopes that tertiary-level space studies will soon be possible.
DoTS has come up with some novel ways to nurture the kingdom's youngest scientists. “In 2020, when we celebrated the 40th birthday of His Majesty the King, we wanted to pay tribute [to him] for establishing Bhutan’s space programme – so we started celebrating His Majesty's whole birthday week as Bhutan Space Week. We've been doing it every year since,” says Yeshey. “For one week, we do a lot of fun activities [with schools across the country] – we go stargazing, we do seminars, we have quizzes, exhibitions, model development and so on. We just have a lot of fun with space. And that's how we would like to introduce space to young children: in a very fun, loving and playful kind of way, not just through books and classrooms.” That’s not all: they’ve also released a children’s book, “Dawa, the Little Astronaut”, which is being developed into an animated TV series by Bhutan’s homegrown streaming platform Samuh.
For young Yeshey, space didn’t even register as a professional aspiration. “When I was growing up, space was not one of the career options in Bhutan. [People were advised to] aim for medicine or engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering or mechanical engineering.” So, as a newly graduated civil engineer, Yeshey set her sights on public health, working on rural sanitation and hygiene projects. But another fate was written in the stars. “All of a sudden, this wonderful opportunity [to join the Birds satellite programme] springs up and I can't help myself. I was so excited, I just decided to go into it.”
An ancient art for modern times
But before Yeshey’s career in space took off, a completely different skyward path beckoned. Between completing her degree and taking her entrance exams for the civil service, her grandfather urged her to consider the traditional science of astrology. “He wanted me to get in touch with our roots,” she remembers. To learn more, they went to the kingdom’s foremost astrological institution, the Druk Phudrangding College for Astrology.
Located about 8km outside Thimphu, this is based at Pangrizampa, which was established around 600 years ago and is said to be Bhutan’s oldest monastery. It was inaugurated as a college for astrology in 2002. Pangrizampa’s stately whitewashed buildings stand on the west bank of the Thimphu river, under two enormous cypresses – at nearly 4m in diameter, they’re said to be Bhutan’s biggest trees. It was these trees that led Pangrizampa’s founder, Zhabdrung Rinpoche, to the site, after he dreamt of a raven that alighted on the branches of a monumental cypress by a river. When he visited Bhutan from Tibet in 1616, he recognised the location from his dream and established what was to become Bhutan’s first Buddhist monastery here.
Today 12 monks teach around 100 students traditional Buddhist astrology. A similar number of students are enrolled at the college’s other locations in Serzhong and Trashiyangtse. The monastery’s vice principal Lopen Sonam Rinchen explains that, after completing their secondary studies, students come here to learn about Buddhist culture, specialising in astrology. Buddhist astrology – believed to have originated with Jampel Yang, the Buddha of Wisdom, and the teachings of the wheel of time (Kalachakra) – calculates and interprets celestial movements and phenomena to guide activities on Earth.
A staggering array of decisions are guided by the astrological efforts of specialised monks around the country. Each year, the college determines and releases the nation’s official calendars and calculates auspicious dates for key national events – His Majesty’s coronation and wedding dates were both decided after thorough astrological consultation. In 2021, Pangrizampa’s monks were tasked with determining the most advantageous date for launching Bhutan’s Covid-19 vaccination programme. Although the vaccines arrived in the country in January, the most auspicious date to commence was judged to be March 27th. On the appointed day, Buddhist prayers were chanted before the first vaccination was administered by a nurse born in the Year of the Monkey to a recipient born in the same year, whose characteristics had been identified as favourable by the astrologers. Their patience was rewarded: within two weeks, 94% of the kingdom’s eligible population had received the vaccine.
The questions asked of astrologers used to be simpler: when to sow or harvest crops, when to start construction on a new house, or what a baby’s moment of birth might indicate. “Maybe 50 years back, people would look up, look to the stars, and they would say that tomorrow it’s going to rain and on Sunday there'll be sunshine. They could predict the weather by looking at the night sky,” says college master Lopen Sonam. “But nowadays you don't see people knowing these things. Maybe they think that it's not useful because now they have the weather forecast to look to.” But it's good for people to preserve these traditions, he says, so that you don't have to rely on fallible technology. Instead, the institute’s astrologers spend years learning highly complex systems of measurements and calculations – all of which are done by hand.
The astrologers’ methods made a lot of sense to Yeshey’s scientific mind. “I met with the teachers and they explained the fundamental concepts. They were also curious as to why I was interested in learning astrology. To me, it seemed a lot like mathematics. But the way they calculated things was quite different [to modern students] – their laws and principles, their methods, the formula that they followed, were different. But it was mathematics at the end of the day. And it’s helped us Bhutanese become who we are.”
But for Yeshey, a career in what she thinks of as “traditional science” wasn’t to be. If she had asked the monks, perhaps they would have told her that her future career would be part of a history-making effort for Bhutan. Because on November 26th 2022 the nation reached another milestone with the launch of BhutanSat. Built in partnership with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), BhutanSat marks a step change in ambition and capability.
Weighing 10kg, BhutanSat features optical sensors that can capture and relay 30m-resolution images of Earth. For a nation as mountainous as Bhutan, this kind of visibility is invaluable. “Having this extra help from the data that we get from space will lessen the burden on humans to actually go and check things physically,” says Yeshey.
“[Bhutan has] a lot of amazing features, such as the glacial lakes, huge forest coverage – it’s a very unique place from a geophysical point of view.
“The satellite’s perspective gives us a lot of valuable information and data that can be channelled into achieving our development goals,” she continues. “We need high-resolution images in order to accurately calculate the weather, forest cover, natural-resources management, conduct climate-change studies and so on.” Developing this kind of capability is the next challenge for the team.
DoTS isn’t the only team embracing technology – or making history. Pangrizampa’s astrologers are also using 21st-century connectivity to relay the wisdom of the heavens through their brand-new mobile app. With Druk Zakar on their phones, anyone can access the daily astrological outlook in Dzongkha and English. There’s also an audio version for visually impaired people. Lopen Sonam is hoping it will help the experts share their knowledge with what was becoming an unmanageable queue of people seeking their help. “Problems are multiplying and people want instant answers,” he tells us. “Since [we developed] the app, fewer people come here. Before, as a school, our teachers got constantly distracted. They couldn’t focus on what they were doing.” Technology is also helping them to reach much further, faster. “Now it's easy to communicate with people. It used to take us weeks or months to reach them. Now, with just a click of a button, it can spread in a minute to everyone.”
To an outsider, the coexistence of ancient and modern expertise might seem curious or contradictory. But to the Bhutanese, it’s all part of the same fundamental process. “Humans have always been curious. And we've always yearned for growth and advancement, to be better, and to leave a legacy behind for your community or for humanity. So I see a similarity between astrology and astronomy,” says Yeshey. “The times may have been different and the instruments that they used were different. The methodology was different. But the innate quest was the same: people wanted to understand the complexities of the universe; they sought answers for what seemed strange and mysterious.
“That’s the same basic principle that we apply in space science as well,” she continues. “We always look out to the universe, asking some of the fundamental questions of human existence. When did the universe start? Why are we here? Are we alone? How long are we going to be on this Earth for? And is there any other planet that we can move over to? That curiosity, I think, is common to some of the traditional sciences like astrology, and the modern sciences like astronomy. I see a harmony.”
So is Yeshey’s grandfather reconciled to her choice to pursue astronomy rather than astrology? “Yes, he’s quite amazed – this never happened before in Bhutan!” she smiles. “In the beginning, he was like, ‘Really? Such a thing exists?’ And I showed them some of the things that I was doing. They thought I was going to be launched into space. So when I got back from Japan, they were like, ‘Oh, you’re still here!’ I told them I wished I could go [to space].”
Thanks to the efforts of Yeshey and her colleagues, that milestone – Bhutan’s first person in space – is approaching at warp speed. Yet that adventure will have to wait for one of Bhutan’s future space pioneers – perhaps one who’s looking towards the stars with a child’s wonderment today.
Engineer and Thimphu-local Yeshey Choden was born in the Water Bird year (1993) and believes that her birth animal has influenced her attraction to the feeling of flying - in both her dreams of space travel and her appreciation of Bhutanese traditional dance, Boedra. A trained dancer in the genre herself, she loves to attend performances of Boedra at Bhutan's many festivals, or tchechus, and at other festive events. "The most beautiful part of Boedra is the lyrics," she says. "They are poems based on the natural and social elements of the country. The musical instruments used are traditional instruments such as dramnyen and yangchen. These instruments add a beautiful and serene melody to the songs". Here she shares some of her favourite things to do in, or near, the capital.
Where to eat
The ramen at Ka Ja Throm in Thimphu’s farmer’s market is delicious; it’s a go-to for me whenever I have ramen cravings. I used to love eating ramen when I was studying in Japan, so it’s lovely to get to have it here. The one here is the best I have tasted so far in Bhutan.
Where to go
We often just drive by Memorial Chorten in Thimphu because of its location right in the middle of town. But I love to go to the chorten and do a few rounds [praying and circling the prayer wheel] when there’s a break in my busy work schedule. It instantly gives me a calming, soothing feeling, refreshing my mind, body and soul.
What to do
I really recommend stargazing at Dochula. We don’t have an observatory there, but if you have a personal telescope, it is a wonderful setting for seeing your favourite constellations in the Himalayas. Bhutan has some of the darkest night skies in the world.