Reach for the stars: Congress passes bill creating Philippine Space Agency

December 6, 2018 - 7:47 PM
Earth in outer space
In this photo: The Philippines may have its own national space agency soon with the Congress passing House Bill 8541 or the Philippine Space Development Act if it is signed into law. (Facebook/Philippine Space Agency - PSA)

The Philippines might have its own national space agency soon after Congress approved a bill on its third and final reading that mandates the establishment of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA).

House Bill 8541, which would be known as the Philippine Space Development Act if passed into law, aims to establish the PhilSA that would be in charge of developing the country’s national space program for the next ten years.

It is supposed to oversee all national issues and activities related to “space science and technology application.”

The bill received 207 affirmative votes with no dissent or abstaining opinions. It was sponsored by Representatives Mariano Velarde Jr., Erico Aumentado and Maria Zamora.

Under the proposed legislation, a space policy exists that would focus on six developmental areas for the progress of a local space industry.

These are national security and development; hazard management and climate studies; space research and development; space industry capacity building; space education and awareness; and international cooperation.

PhilSA will be affiliated with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) with proposed offices in Clark Special Economic Zone in Pampanga and Tarlac.

The space agency will be financially supported by the Philippine Space Development Fund.

As of the moment, different government agencies are handling space-related activities.

These are the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (for disaster risk management), Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (for astronomical science studies) and the National Mapping and Resource Information Agency (for mapping).

Meanwhile, the National SPACE Development Program is the one handling all the “foundation(s) of a future dedicated space agency.”

A Senate version of the bill, initially proposed by Sen. Bam Aquino, has passed the committee level.

The need for a space agency

Initiative to establish a national space agency surfaced in 2016, the same year that Diwata 1, the first Filipino-built satellite, was launched into orbit.

Rowena Guevara, DOST’s Undersecretary for Research and Development, revealed that the government under the Aquino administration has expressed its desire to create such an agency.

This was justified by astrophysicist Rogel Mari Sese, who is the program leader of the National Space Development Program under the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development.

The Department of Science and Technology under the Aquino administration expressed their desire to create a national space agency. (Facebook/Philippine Space Agency – PSA)

“(Currently) a lot of government agencies are doing space-related work, but it’s all uncoordinated. (With the space agency and space policy), instead of having it all under separate branches or agencies of the government, it will all be unified,” Sese said in an interview.

He added that weather and environment monitoring would be further improved under the helm of a space agency, as well as the assessment of agriculture-related activities.

DOST has previously suggested that the country’s rice production could be improved through remote sensing technologies.

Sese noted that a space agency can greatly contribute to the development of the country’s national security and cited that it may be helpful for monitoring the activities at the West Philippine Sea.

“Even secure military communications are transmitted through satellites,” he said.

Sese continued:

“The usual question we get is, ‘Why do we need space? We have a whole lot of other problems, like poverty, economic growth, etc.’ Things like that. (But) when you’re in the field of space, you know what would be beneficial (to the country) and what won’t be.”

“The end goal here is really to use space for national security and development. To improve the status of the country. It’s not just for conducting research.”

Previous attempts at reaching into space

The country has been involved in space technology since the ’60s under the initiative of former President Ferdinand Marcos. He established an Earth satellite receiving station in Makati that linked the Philippines to a worldwide communications satellite network.

However, it was not until 1987 that a satellite was first launched into space, although it was developed by foreigners. It was called Agila 1 or Mabuhay and it operated for 11 years.

Another foreign-developed satellite was launched in 1997. It was called Agila 2 and it offered telecommunication services for a private company. It got sold to ABS, a Hong Kong-based global satellite operator, in 2009.

The local space industry didn’t make any significant developments for seven years following Agila 2’s foreign acquisition.

In 2016, a Filipino-designed satellite was launched into orbit by the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development.

It was called Diwata 1 and it operated for 20 months, providing high-resolution images of the country for weather-related monitoring purposes, among others.

Two years later, its successor was launched into orbit. Diwata 2 had additional features such as a deployable solar panel, enhanced resolution cameras and a sun-synchronous orbit for weather and environmental monitoring.