Philippine Space Agency: Is a Filipino in space in the horizon?

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 14 2019 08:45 PM | Updated as of Aug 14 2019 10:59 PM

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MANILA - At 2:04 p.m. on Wednesday, the Philippines’ second microsatellite Diwata-2 passed over the Philippines, causing the receiving antenna at the Philippine Earth Data Resource Observation Center in Quezon City to move with it as data was transmitted to the ground receiving station.

Tumbling in space at seven kilometers per second, Diwata-2 took around 10 to 20 minutes to pass over the Philippine area of responsibility. During that time, it was sending its vital signs to the receiving station. Both batteries showed up on the large screens as bright green bars. 

DOST personnel look at the receiving antenna of the Philippine Earth Data Resource Observation Center in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

At that time, it was not consuming a lot of power as the ground station wasn’t sending any commands. But Joel Marciano Jr., acting director of the Department of Science and Technology’s Advanced Science and Technology Institute (DOST-ASTI), said microsatellites like Diwata-2 can easily be given commands to take photos of large swathes of land. 

Philippine government agencies are becoming more reliant on satellite data to monitor the status of projects for the Department of Budget and Management or to map vegetation changes for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. 

Marciano is one of several DOST officials who spoke at a press conference on Wednesday morning lauding the creation of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA).

“Welcome to the space age!” the moderator said at the start of the event. “Officially, we are now part of the space-faring nations.”

It had only been a day since it was announced that President Rodrigo Duterte has signed Republic Act No. 11363, which not only creates PhilSA but also a Philippine Space Development Fund, which will get an initial P10 billion from the national government’s share of income from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA). 

Science Secretary Fortunato de la Peña said it was about time that the Philippines created its own space agency since it was only one of the few Southeast Asian nations without one.

“We would like to thank first of all the president for signing into law this landmark bill, which will pave the way for the Philippines to join other nations which have their own space agencies,” he said, adding that his first presentation to the president in 2016 was a 10-year program on space development.

Instead of being under the DOST, PhilSA will be an attached agency under the Office of the President and will be headed by a director general with a cabinet secretary rank. The director general of PhilSA will also serve as the presidential adviser on space matters.

RA 11363 states that there will be a Philippine Space Policy that will embody the country’s goal of “becoming a space-capable and space-faring nation within the next decade.” 

The policy will have six development 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.

But will we soon have a Filipino on the moon?

FILIPINO IN SPACE

Asked what is in the future for the PhilSA, experts on the panel said it will probably continue to locally produce satellites.

“The global trend is miniaturization,” said Paul Leonard Hilario, project leader of Optical Payload Technology In-depth Knowledge Acquisition and Localization (OPTIKAL). 

“Satellites are becoming smaller and smaller but they are able to do many things as well.”

After the press conference, Marciano said: “Being pragmatic in the beginning, we probably start off on continuing what we are doing, momentum on building small satellites. But we’re not precluding the possibility that later on the Filipino will be in space.”

“I cannot discount the impact of having a Filipino astronaut in terms of inspiring young children,” he said, talking about how it would raise the youth’s interest in pursuing science careers by having a Filipino astronaut tour the country, especially rural areas.

“But having the space agency, they’ll be in the better position to plan that and strategize,” he added. “If we were to send somebody in space. We want it to be more than symbolic. We want to contribute something meaningful. Maybe do an experiment in the International Space Station, an experiment borne out of local research.”

CONTINUATION OF PROGRAMS

De la Peña said that DOST has already invested and made strides in space technology, including the creation and operation of three satellites: microsatellite Diwata-1 and Diwata-2, and cube satellite.

The agency also invested a total of P7.48 billion on space-related research and development. Part of that amount went to 15 space-related programs and projects and 25 space research and development facilities.

University of the Philippines professor Mark Tupas, project leader of Ground Receiving, Archiving Science Product Development and Distribution (GRASPED), pointed out that the Philippines has long been part of the space age as a user of “downstream data” or data from satellites. 

However, he said “the Philippine Space Agency will bridge the gap between the upstream (creating and sending objects into space) and the downstream.”

Since the DOST has been pursuing a number of space-related projects -- such as DOST-ASTI’s plan to produce four cube satellites in the next three years -- De la Peña said they would complete the existing ones since PhilSA will be coming up with new projects.

BRAIN GAIN

Asked if the new agency will result in the moving of some personnel and teams from the DOST to PhilSA, De la Peña said "it will be an individual decision” on the part of the employees.

He said “brain drain” or the possible transfer of experts from DOST to PhilSA won’t be an issue since nobody is going out of the country.

Marciano also told ABS-CBN News that the government will “take advantage of this space agency to lure (Filipino scientists abroad).” 

He said the “brain gain” could be aided by the enhancements and additional incentives of the DOST's long-standing Balik Scientist program.

At the same time, De la Peña emphasized that the Philippines has more than 1,000 experts in space science who could be tapped by PhilSA.

DOST presents personnel assisting in government's ongoing space research and development projects. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News.

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

With the possibility of sending a Filipino to the moon a bit far off, Filipino experts are focused on utilizing satellite data to improve the local economy and local industries.

“From an economic point of view, we think it’s all spending but it is also an opportunity to improve the economy,” said Enrico Paringit, executive director of the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD).

“One reason why this law might have been pushed is because they’re seeing that it’s possible for the Philippines to get involved in developing capabilities to produce space-grade components. This is brought about by our large sector in electronics and an emerging aerospace industry.”

Paringit said images captured from space can help improve agricultural productivity. 

“Because now we’re doing mostly ground-based monitoring but we have vast agricultural land,” he said.

He said satellite data can not just help monitor fisherfolk but also determine areas with more fish.

“Our forests, we can monitor real-time where deforestation and degradation are taking place.”

Joel Marciano Jr. at the Philippine Earth Data Resource Observation Center's ground receiving station. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News.

Marciano pointed out that the DOST has been monitoring infrastructure projects for the DBM through the Digital Imaging for Monitoring and Evaluation (DIME) Project. 

“It’s also addressing irrigation and the national greening program,” he said.”

“A big motivation for us going into space is really about data. And data is a new oil. In the knowledge economy, the currency is data,” Marciano said. 

“We are going to space because we want to have visibility of our environment in a scale that we never had before.”

Marciano emphasized the importance of getting data through the help of satellites in order to craft better policies for the country. 

“A form of poverty is a lack of information,” he said.

De la Peña said there are still a lot of details that would need to be addressed by the implementing rules and regulations of the new law. 

Besides what is written in the Philippine Space Act, he said they have no idea yet who the President would appoint as PhilSA director general. What they do know is that the agency would have 30 hectares of land within the Clark Special Economic Zone. De la Peña said they hope to have something constructed before 2022, the end of Duterte’s term.