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Why a space program might be good for the Philippines

THE Philippines’ first microsatellite Diwata-1 recently beamed back the images it took from orbit. Hokkaido University, one of the partners in developing Diwata-1, described the images as being “world-best” for a microsatellite of its class. 

The 50-kg microsatellite was developed by the Department of Science and Technology and the University of the Philippines-Diliman in cooperation with Hokkaido and Tohoku Universities. The microsatellite orbits Earth at about 400 km above the planet’s surface.

Many hope that Diwata-1 will be just the first of many projects in a Philippine space program. The fulfillment of this hope might be within reach. Diwata-1 will be followed by another Filipino-made microsatellite to be launched in 2017. Diwata-1 and its sister will be the Philippines’ contribution to a 50-micosatellite alliance planned by nine countries. Among these countries are our neighbors Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Each of these countries have their own space programs.

The fact that we are lagging behind our neighbors in space science is one of the facts advocates point out to encourage more support for a Philippine space program. Advocates also highlight the massive benefits the Philippines will reap by investing in space.

Some question, however, whether a space program should really be one of the government’s priorities at the moment. They argue that with problems like high poverty rates, food insecurity, the effects of climate change, and more, there are better ways to spend the country’s limited budget. 

Others question whether having our own space program will really be worth the cost. Existing satellites and those that will be sent by neighbors might be enough for our purposes. 

There are also the issues of opportunities for corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Some worry that “unnecessary” government projects might lead to waste of more of public money.

But the benefits of investing in a space program far outweigh these worries, which can be addressed adequately and resolutely.

A space program can help us tackle some of our most urgent problems. For example, our efforts in disaster risk reduction and management will greatly benefit from a space program. Having our own satellite will make it easier for us to take high-resolution images; these images, in turn, can help us plan for and manage the effects of natural disasters. Imagine the number of lives that can be saved. 

After all, we pay other countries and private corporations for the use of their satellites. This costs money, too. It might be wiser to invest in our own space program in the long run. Having our own program will allow us to choose which technologies are most suited for our purpose. The high quality of the images taken by Diwata-1 speaks for this.

Having our own space program will let us benefit more from the programs of our neighbors. If we want to gain from what the Vietnamese or Indonesians are learning, we need to have technologies and infrastructures similar to theirs.

We are already spending a lot on space science. The problem is, this spending is scattered among different institutions: the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa), National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, Department of National Defense, and the Philippine Rice Research Institute.

So yes, we are already spending public money on space science. We just need to spend it more wisely. Having a space agency that manages the space program might make the operation not only more cohesive but also more efficient.

A cohesive space program has the potential to start a positive ripple effect. Aside from hiring engineers and scientists, a space program will also need lawyers, accountants, and a host of other professionals. Studies done in other countries show that for every space program job created, nearly a dozen support jobs emerge.

Of course, we need to be vigilant about how our future space program’s budget is spent. Such a program is primarily a tool, and there is always the danger that this tool may not be used well. 

The cost doesn’t have to be so high. What needs to be high is our ambition.

(Pecier Decierdo is a science communicator for The Mind Museum.)

Topics: Everyman , space program , microsatellite Diwata-1 , Hokkaido University , Department of Science and Technology , University of the Philippines-Diliman , Tohoku Universities
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