The Philippines’ place in space

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Flood mapping is a common application of satellite imagery. Image courtesy of The Remote Sensing and Data Science (DATOS)

The Philippines has a space agency. Not space as in land area, which might make more sense for a country that is among the densest and most populous in the world, but space as in the final frontier. “I know that some people ask, ‘Why should we even care about space?,’” said Joseph S. Marciano, Director-General of the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), a national body founded in August 2019 with an initial operating fund of P1 billion.

At a webinar held on August 6—the same day that Curiosity rover landed on Mars eight years ago—representatives from the Philippine space program outlined its projects. 

Of interest is Diwata-2, a microsatellite equipped with a high-precision telescope, a space-borne multispectral imager, and enhanced resolution cameras. Images taken by these instruments are beneficial because of their large coverage, their spatial resolution, and their ability to capture daily, weekly, or monthly snapshots. Diwata-2 is one of three satellites the Philippines has in orbit.

It is through satellite imagery that earthbound humans are able to grasp the devastation wrought by typhoons such as Haiyan, which destroyed the Visayas in 2013, or by fires that are still raging in the Amazon rainforest. 

Satellite images and data, along with data from thousands of sensors deployed all over the country, are processed and used by stakeholders such as the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, among others.

Flood mapping is the most common application of satellite data. Beyond that, data was used to evaluate the extent of the Taal Volcano’s ashfall when it erupted this January; to monitor the 2019 drought of Occidental Mindoro; and to detect damaged structures caused by the Battle of Marawi in 2017.

Optical imagery from Diwata-2 was also used to determine the relationship between:

• air quality and COVID-19 cases — cities in the National Capital Region with high levels of nitrogen dioxide, a gaseous pollutant from cars that burn fossil fuels, also had a high number of COVID-19 cases and deaths

• night lights and monitor economic growth — fewer night lights in the second quarter of the year coincided with the biggest drop in the country’s Gross Domestic Product since the 1980s.

Satellite imagery and spaceborne data, Mr. Marciano said, “can provide geospatial information in a timely and accurate fashion” for improving health systems improvement and food security, and enabling a digital government and economy. This spaceborne data is more relevant now given travel restrictions. And who knows, one day, PhilSA might send a Filipino to Mars (there will no shortage of volunteers). — Patricia B. Mirasol

The public can access the Philippine Space Agency’s space data at The user name is spacedatademo and the password is space2020. The site is still in development. Expect data updates on traffic monitoring, air quality, water quality, and night lights.