Philippine Space Agency: To infinity and beyond

They say the sky’s the limit. But the Philippines is aiming higher.

Last May, the Senate passed the Philippine Space Act that seeks to create the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), which  is tasked to plan, develop, and promote our very own national space program. A counterpart bill was passed by the House of Representatives in December 2018. Both measures will be merged and lawmakers aim to ratify the bill before Congress adjourns. After which, it will be submitted to the President for signing into law.

Just the first step

The bill, known as the “Act Establishing the Philippine Space Development and Utilization Policy and Creating the Philippine Space Agency,” is merely the beginning for the country’s more streamlined approach toward crafting our own space policy. 

Once officially a law, the PhilSA will be an attached agency to the Office of the President given its applications on different areas like agriculture, environment, defense, disaster risk assessment, and science. The Philippine Space Policy be the country’s primary roadmap for space development, aimed at making the Philippines a space-capable nation. Initial funding for the space program is pegged at P1 billion. PhilSA will also be allotted P10 billion after the effectivity of the act, with P2 billion to be disbursed to the agency over five years. According to the bill, the PhilSA office and its facilities will be set up in a 30-hectare land within the Clark Special Economic Zone, with additional areas for research and launch sites to be developed in the future.

Decades in the making

While the landmark bill is a fairly recent development, the Philippines has actually been working on space technology for the last few decades. In the 1960s, the government built a satellite receiving station during the Marcos era. By the 1970s, the country ventured on its first rocket development program. In 1996, Mabuhay Satellite Corp., a Filipino private firm, acquired the country’s first in-orbit satellite Aguila-1. A year later in 1997, the company’s own telecommunications satellite Aguila-2, which was developed by a U.S. company, was launched to space from China. And of course, who could forget Diwata-1, the first microsatellite developed by Filipinos, which was launched in 2014?  Following the success of Diwata-1, the government was able to send two more satellites, the Diwata-2 microsatellite and Maya-1 cube satellite in 2018.

Diwata-1. Photo courtesy of JAXA/NASA.

Notice that these milestones were so far apart, largely because the Philippines has had difficulties with sufficient funding, expertise, facilities, and the lack of a central governing agency for developing such technology. At present, the country’s space program is maintained by several agencies under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Hopefully the establishment of PhilSA will change all that. 

Benefits of a space program

The space program’s framework covers six key 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. The bill seeks to spur development within these areas, the progress of which when sustained is expected to give the needed boost in the field of science but also in allied fields, giving the Philippines a leg up in finding solutions to some of the country’s biggest problems. 

“A robust space program will enable improved national security, especially in the waters surrounding the Philippine archipelago.”

For example, development of more satellites can help improve disaster mitigation measures by providing accurate information which would allow for early warnings and prediction of disasters. 

Space technology also opens up opportunities to enhance production and profitability of agribusinesses through soil and weather monitoring and assessment. Part of the Diwata satellites’ functions is to observe weather disturbances in the Philippines. More satellites like these would mean more data that would help produce more accurate weather forecasts, which in turn would help the agriculture sector decide when and what to plant or harvest. This could mean better yield and less waste for the agribusiness area. 

A robust space program will also enable improved national security, especially in the waters surrounding the Philippine archipelago. This would mean we wouldn’t have to solely rely on satellite imageries from foreign institutions or allied governments. Enhancements in this field would give the Philippine Coast Guard and the Navy a huge boost in their task of protecting Philippine territories.

Other applications also include helping with the conservation and preservation of the environment, improved urban planning, transportation, and communication networks.

A different view of things

The Philippines has an existing space program under the DOST, so the country isn’t actually starting from scratch. But there’s definitely much to be done. With the PhilSA set in place once the bill is enacted into law, there will finally be a clear guiding principle upon which the country can build, support, and sustain what the pioneers have started decades ago.

“Building a space program means more than just sending a satellite to space or developing rockets that can carry us to the cosmos.”

Some might question why it is necessary to even invest in a space program when the government can focus on other pressing issues. It is a valid concern. But building a space program means more than just sending a satellite to space or developing rockets that can carry us to the cosmos. If it isn’t already apparent, the institutionalization of a sustainable space program will enable Filipinos to see out of the box and devise solutions that were otherwise unthought of. Sometimes, the answers aren’t visible on the ground level. We have to have a view from a higher ground to see things differently. The Philippine space program will do just that, literally and figuratively.

Words Penn de Vera. This story was originally published in Speed Magazine’s July 2019 issue.


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