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Profile: Los Baños scientist dreams big by looking up

Dr. Rogel Mari Sese is one of only three astrophysicists in the Philippines. He rues the country’s state of space technology and space awareness but is determined to help change all that.

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LOS BAÑOS — While many Filipinos are busy looking down, thumbing through their smart phones, and are preoccupied with their daily affairs, a few decide to spend their time looking up to the sky, wondering about possibilities. Dr. Rogel Mari Sese, one of only three astrophysicists in the Philippines, is passionate about space — so passionate that he became one of the prime movers of what is to become the Philippine Space Agency.

A decade ago, talk of space was mostly confined to the four corners of the classroom and among scientists. Today, space is slowly permeating into the public’s consciousness. “I’ve been tracking how space is being portrayed in media, whether it’s in TV or in advertising. And the good thing is it’s becoming what we call a ‘sexy’ topic for the public,” the 37-year-old Los Baños native said, a hot mug of coffee in hand. However, public awareness of space leaves much to be desired. Ask an ordinary person in the street about space and they will equate it to going to the moon or visiting other planets, Sese said. That is not entirely a bad thing, he said, as it can spark an interest in the field.

SPACEMAN. When home in Laguna, Dr. Rogel Mari Sese usually spends his Saturday mornings flying drones on the UP Los Baños campus. (Photo by Kimmy Baraoidan)

“People will always be amazed with the night sky,” said the scientist, who at a very young age was already fascinated with space. He cited last year’s super blue blood moon as an example of how public awareness of space has heightened and piqued people’s curiosity. “I think that was one of the best public awareness events that I’ve ever seen in the Philippines. Everyone was involved. It’s all over the news,” he said. But the public’s fascination often ends there. “It’s not being translated into the figurative sense of looking up, wondering what is out there, how [this can] benefit us and other things,” he said.  “It stops at observation. You record it but you don’t analyze it. So in that sense, that’s where we are lacking, and it’s a problem that’s not unique to the Philippines.”

Promoting space

Aside from working with policymakers to craft a bill that will establish the Philippine Space Agency, Sese is also involved in promoting space to students. “We use it to encourage students to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. That’s the hook for them to be interested,” he said. “It’s really the gateway to the sciences.” Sese knows: He holds a bachelor’s degree in applied physics from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, a master’s degree in physics from UP Diliman, and a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Tsukuba in Japan.

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Currently, there are only three schools in the country that offer space-related degree programs like aerospace engineering but the academe is slowly preparing. “Once we have the Philippine Space Agency, the projection is about 800 people [will need] to be there who’s trained in the field of space,” he told Laguna Now in an interview. Space law is also a field where people will be needed in the future, he added. But for now, he deals with the headache-inducing ins and outs of space policy, meeting with local senators, attending international conferences, or getting invited to have coffee with foreign government officials.

When news of forming a Philippine space agency broke a few years ago, people were quick to scoff at the idea, thinking that with all the problems the country has, establishing such an entity was not necessary, not realizing that the benefits of space technology are exactly what the country needs to at least alleviate some of its problems. “Imagine if you have a telecom satellite. Basically if you’re linking the whole Philippines all together as one, even if you’re on a remote island or barangay, you have communication access. You can send a simple text message or have access to the internet,” Sese explained.

The satellite as a lifeline

Space technology is essential during times of disaster, especially when cell sites are damaged or destroyed. “When all else fails, your lifeline is a satellite,” Sese said. Another application is damage assessment. Sese said it would normally take a day or two to have aerial coverage but if there are satellites in place, imagery of the damaged area can be generated in as little as 90 minutes. “So even before first responders are deployed, they already have information about the extent [of the damage] and expectations on the ground. They can even bring in the requirements needed. So that can actually help save a lot of lives because the first 48 hours of a disaster is always the most critical,” he added.

Agriculture is also a sector that will greatly benefit from space technology. Some government agencies like the Department of Agriculture are already using space technology, said Sese. Satellite images of farmlands can help estimate the amount of expected agricultural produce and can help in water resource management by showing which areas lack or have excess water. More importantly, satellite images can also give an idea of the extent of damage on a farmland when a typhoon strikes, for example. Sese said this kind of information can aid policymakers in deciding if the country needs to import agricultural produce or not.

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Fishermen can also benefit from the technology. Sese cited the case of Indian fishermen who are able to receive text messages that tell them where to fish. “Giving that opportunity and trickling it down to the subsistence fishermen, that’s a big thing,” he said. “That can make the difference between them eating for the day and having nothing to eat.”

Space technology is an indispensable tool for national security. “One reason why we’re at a disadvantage at the West Philippine Sea is we don’t know what’s happening. We can’t see what’s happening because we don’t have our own satellite to observe that [area] on a regular basis. We have satellites but our current satellites cannot answer the needs of the defense sector,” Sese explained.

Determined

These benefits and more are not immediately apparent to most people, and Sese patiently explains these to policymakers and key government agencies. He is determined to not only promote space but to realize the goal of having our own space agency. “What drives me is that if I don’t push this far, if we don’t push for this, many will suffer. There will be lots of lost opportunities for the Philippines,” he said. “Even Bangladesh right now is ahead of us in terms of space technology. They have their own geostationary satellite. Their satellite is much, much, much bigger than [all our three satellites] combined,” he added.

“It’s tiring but it needs to be done,” Sese said about his work. With all the long meetings, conferences, and trips he had to attend to, Sese still finds time for his wife and two kids, and for other space-related pursuits. He is currently the program leader of a drone project with the Department of Science and Technology and also runs his own company, Regulus Spacetech Inc., which specializes in space research and development.

Sese still has more work ahead but remains driven and tireless. The approval of Senate Bill 1983 on second reading last February brings the dream of our own space agency one step closer to reality, a dream that Sese hopes will be shared by many Filipinos. He lives by something that the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” (Laguna Now)


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