Asia Pacific / Science & Health

Philippines breaks new ground with own space agency

Kyodo

The Philippines is entering a new phase in science and technology under a new law creating a space agency, a move officials say will have positive effects on national security and public welfare.

The Philippine Space Act was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on Aug. 8. It will govern the country’s space development and utilization policy.

“This piece of legislation will bear fruits that generations to come will be enjoying,” Fortunato dela Pena, the Filipino science and technology secretary, told a news briefing Wednesday, acknowledging that the data collected from space technology will have multiple significant applications on the ground.

In an earlier interview, Rogel Mari Sese, a Filipino astrophysicist who helped craft the law, said it was a long time coming.

“Space is no longer a luxury when it comes to national development and security. It’s a necessity,” Sese said.

Sese said the creation of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) is in the administration’s Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022, and in its National Security Policy.

Based on the law signed by Duterte, the space policy will focus on six 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.

A Philippine Space Council, to be chaired by the president and composed of other key members of the Cabinet, was also created to act as the principal advisory body.

“Now we can have an agency that can move on its own, without depending on other agencies, to implement whatever plans (and) policies (that) will be crafted coming from the Philippine Space Council,” dela Pena explained.

PhilSA will be situated in the Clark Special Economic Zone, north of Manila, and dela Pena hopes the facility will be ready before the Duterte administration ends in 2022.

“We have to be pragmatic in the beginning. We probably start off continuing what we’re doing and have momentum (in) building these small satellites,” said Joel Marciano of the Department of Science and Technology’s Advanced Science and Technology Institute when asked about expectations for PhilSA’s first years in operation.

While the Philippines has been tapping space technology for more than a century already, it was not until the advent of the new millennium that it began engaging more actively in space-related endeavors.

In 2014, the country adopted a micro-satellite program that honed local engineers to produce Diwata 1, Diwata 2 and Maya 1, which were all subsequently launched into space via foreign facilities.

After investments and preparations made over several decades, dela Pena declared in January that the Philippines was ready to have its own national space agency. He said his department has invested around 7.5 billion pesos (almost $143 million) since 2010 in space research and development, and already has more than a thousand experts in space science.

There are also 25 space-related facilities operating nationwide, 15 programs and projects being implemented by different agencies and universities, and eight international institutional collaborations for space research and development.

The academic sector has also been responding to the growth of the space industry, with some universities offering space-related courses.

Enrico Paringit of the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development spelled out the practical benefits key sectors in the country stand to receive from space technology.

“We can monitor vessels out there in the sea. … This can also support our fisher folk, not just to monitor where they are but also where to efficiently fish. … We can also monitor our agricultural productivity. … We can monitor real-time, with these capabilities in place, where deforestation and degradations are taking place. … We can monitor situations in disaster-stricken areas,” Paringit said.

In the global community, dela Pena said, the Philippines can contribute more knowledge, “since we will be accumulating a lot of information and data.”

“If our data scientists will work on the data and information that we are able to collect, there will be new knowledge that can be generated, and there will be models that can be presented,” he said.

The country will also be better poised to air any concerns on space issues in international gatherings, such as those in the United Nations.

Marciano of the DOST expects that the establishment of the PhilSA will encourage Filipino space scientists abroad to return home, as well as inspire young Filipinos to seek careers or professions related to space.

“We’re not precluding the possibility of it later on — that a Filipino would be in space,” he said.

“If we’re to send somebody in space … we want it to contribute something meaningful, maybe do an experiment in the space station, an experiment that is born out of local research,” he added.

But the prospects of the Philippines having its own rocket launcher remain remote “because it costs a lot of money,” Marciano said.

According to the law, an initial operating fund of 1 billion pesos has been appropriated for PhilSA, with a 10 billion peso Philippine Space Development Fund created exclusively for capital outlays. The agency is also permitted to generate income from its specialized products, services and royalties, as well as accept grants and donations and secure loans.

Lawmaker Carlos Zarate of the progressive sectoral group Bayan Muna (People First) views the establishment of PhilSA as another case of the government’s wrong prioritization in terms of fund allocation.

“There’s nothing wrong in being ambitious. … But that 10 billion pesos can go a long way if we improve our agriculture sector. We even have a problem in our health sector, which is also being deprived of funds. Our social services are facing big problems,” Zarate said in an interview before the law was passed.

But Sese, the astrophysicist, said that based on a study his group conducted, the average return for every peso invested in space technology or a space program is 2.5 pesos, which, he said, is a “very conservative estimate,” citing the global rate of “$4 for every $1.”