A space agency — why not?
Science geeks rejoice. Republic Act No. 11363 or the Philippine Space Act, which lays the groundwork for the country’s space technology roadmap in the next decade through the creation of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) — the country’s version of Nasa — was signed by President Duterte earlier this month. This makes the Philippines the sixth country in Southeast Asia to have its own space agency after Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
PhilSA, with an initial funding of P10 billion spread over five years, will support research and development programs aimed at improving the lives of Filipinos as well as enhancing the country’s national security.
More importantly, it will organize under one national agency all space-related activities focusing on six developmental areas: national security and development; hazard management and climate studies; space research and development; space industry capacity-building; space education and awareness; and international cooperation.
Few are aware that space science is not new to the Philippines. In the mid-1960s, the government built a ground satellite station in Rizal and entered into a joint venture to put up the Philippine Communications Satellite (Philcomsat). Philcomsat had an exclusive franchise for satellite communication in Southeast Asia, South Korea and Japan, and provided the equipment that allowed people in Asia to watch the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969.
Over the past decades, the country has moved forward — though very slowly — in space technology, with the help of other countries. It reached a major breakthrough when in April 2016, Diwata-1, the first microsatellite owned by the government and developed by Filipino engineers, was launched into orbit.
As of February 2019, Diwata-1 has captured more than 36,000 images, including that of Manila Bay. The data using landsat (land satellite) technology helped scientists analyze the level of turbidity in the Bay and identify the sources of pollution, months before the government launched a massive cleanup.
Two other satellites have since been launched after Diwata-1: Maya-1 in June 2018 and Diwata-2 in October 2018.
For many, space technology sounds like a lofty — not to mention costly — idea for a poor country like the Philippines.
“When you talk about Philippine Space program, normally, the first thing that comes to mind is sending people to space,” said Dr. Rogel Mari Sese, an astrophysicist and one of PhilSA’s main proponents, in a TV interview. “What we are more concerned about is bringing the benefits of space technologies and applications to the Philippines. This can come in various forms.”
These applications include transmitting signals for TV, mobile phones and broadband, among others. The global positioning system or GPS, which is a main function in smartphones, rely on transmissions from satellites. And through remote sensing, space science also has the capability to capture satellite images that help scientists monitor environmental conditions, like an approaching storm or the impact of heat waves.
This information is important for farmers and fishermen, for example, because it helps them decide when to plant or harvest, or when to go out to sea to fish. During disasters, it can identify the most affected areas as well as their accessibility, so help could reach them sooner.
In an archipelago like the Philippines, this will also tremendously improve connectivity between islands. Moreover, the technology can monitor areas like the West Philippine Sea, a flashpoint for unsanctioned activities that have been threatening the country’s sovereignty.
Before the development of its own satellites, the country had been dependent on foreign technology, costing it about P3.5 billion annually just to acquire satellite images, space communications capabilities and other space technology applications, said Sese. But if the Philippines were to run its own national space program that will fulfill all these requirements, the cost would be about P2.5 billion.
With its P10-billion initial funding and more than 1,000 space science experts “ready, willing and able” to join PhilSA, the new space law should improve the country’s space technology capabilities and encourage more young people to pursue space science and related courses as a career — especially now that local schools have started offering these courses.
The Department of Science and Technology has partnered with the University of the Philippines Diliman to offer aerospace engineering courses this year, while Ateneo de Davao University started a similar program last year.
Welcome to the Philippines’ space age.
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