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Stars In Their Eyes

A few hours’ drive away from the city reveals the oft-forgotten splendor of the night sky, and the Filipino astronomers leading the future of space education in the country.

Photography by
Jilson Tiu
Read Time
Location Tag
Rizal

If it weren’t for the tents sitting scattered around the slopes of Big Handy’s Grounds, you wouldn’t think we were in the middle of a stargazing activity. The telltale signs are missing: no telescopes, no campers, no lecturers standing in the middle of the clearing—only blankets of thick, heavy clouds lingering above the surrounding mountains. The intermittent rains have left the campgrounds dark and empty, save for a few flickers of red light coming from our flashlights, and a single man standing outside.

Edmund Rosales stares pensively at the horizon, observing the slow movement of the clouds. He notes their point of origin and the direction they were heading—east, westward—surmising that once the clouds stop appearing from the east, the skies would eventually clear. A professor and former president of the Philippine Astronomical Society, Edmund is one of our lecturers, teaching us the names of basic stars and constellations. That is, until the rain cuts our lecture short, leaving a few of us waiting outside.

“Sir, do you think we’ll still be able to see any stars tonight?” One of the campers asks.

“Wag kayong mag-alala, kaya pa yan,” Edmund says immediately, sounding more certain than I expected. At 12:30 A.M., we are more than halfway through the night, making me doubt whether we could come out of this trip with a satisfying view of the night sky. But Edmund sounded sure, and we had enough reason to believe he was right. This man is more than just a seasoned stargazer; he is a professional astronomer and meteorologist too, one of the most recognized scientists in the country. If anyone knows how to interpret the skies, surely it is him.

To our disappointment, stargazing that night just wasn’t meant to be. As the small hand of the clock inches closer and closer to 3 A.M., the clouds show little signs of improvement. They remain thick and clumpy as ever, with only the light pollution over Metro Manila illuminating the sky. With a little over two hours left before sunrise, we resign ourselves to our tents, where we could at least stay warm and dry as we chase the last hours of sleep.  

Still, one astronomer kept vigil outside.

While we attended to keeping warm, he attended to the stars for us, knowing that when they showed up, we would follow. As we walk inside, I catch sight of him: sitting down now, but still carefully watching the skies.

Amid these growing pains, a few brave souls continue to stand—individuals who, for the longest time, have watched over the stars for us, even when nobody else wanted to look up.

Next to light pollution and a full moon, rain clouds are a nuisance to stargazing; I learned all this before we even left for our campsite in Tanay, Rizal. Before organizing any stargazing activity, it’s always a good idea to check on the weather and the size of the moon to ensure that stars and other celestial bodies will be seen. You can easily find out the latter by checking a lunar calendar online–easier to predict given the moon orbits the Earth every month. Weather forecasts, on the other hand, require a bit of discretion; while reliable most of the time, they’re not always 100% accurate. Sometimes, Mother Nature just has the upper-hand.

At least, that’s how camp facilitator Bryan Mistola puts it, as we stand at the meet-up point waiting for the rest of the group to load into their respective buses in Cubao. Though the Philippine Astronomical Society only offers public camps during the dry season, moments of unpredictability can still overturn their plans, like what happened during the Geminids observation camp in 2017.

“It was the worst camp-out we ever had,” Bryan shares, shaking his head. “That was in December. We prepared in advance, but still, it rained the whole night. Now, we only hold camps for society members during the rainy season, so it’s easier to manage expectations.”

Still, as far as expectations go, none of us imagined a downpour in January. Earlier that day, as we drove up the campgrounds, the skies were bright and clear, the golden grass atop the Sierra Madre shimmying with the breeze. We even passed by three rainbows, which I thought would be a good sign. Little did I know.

It’s rare to find conversations about astronomy that veer away from Western connotations, let alone to find oneself immersed in the local astronomy scene. In the Philippines, astronomy has always been an afterthought, an add-on to our general science curriculum and nothing more. At the same time, we almost never hear of the names and meanings our ancestors gave to the stars, having grown up with constellations named after Western myths and legends: the hunter Orion, the vain queen Cassiopeia, the demigod Perseus. It was always their stories we read or heard of, and never our own. Taught like this, astronomy becomes forgettable, and children grow up oblivious to the wonders of the sky.

The earliest records of Philippine astronomy are found in the works of Spaniards Miguel de Loarca and Juan de Plascenia who, in the late 1500s, wrote about life in the Philippine Islands and the customs of the early Tagalogs. They observed that pre-Hispanic Filipinos relied on two prominent star asterisms, Orion and Pleiades, to signal the beginning and end of farming season. Not unlike the world’s earliest civilizations, our ancestors relied on the movement of stars and planets to guide their daily lives, particularly in navigation and timekeeping.

The Tagalogs, for example, referred to the constellation Orion as Balatik, a hunting trap similar to a crossbow, while Pleiades was known as Molopolo or Moroporo, a plant similar to the gumamela flower. For the Teduray of Zamboanga, Orion was known as the hunter Seretar, while Pleiades or Kufukufu was imagined as a swarm of flies hovering above the hunter’s catch. Though each indigenous group had different names for the stars—with most terms ironically relating to hunting instead of farming—both past and present historians found that Orion and Pleiades were generally used to indicate favorable conditions for kaingin.

In the late 1800s, astronomy in the Philippines evolved from naked-eye observations to scientific investigations, when Jesuit scholars from the Ateneo de Manila University put up the Manila Observatory. Under the leadership of Father Federico Faura, the Manila Observatory carried out research in meteorology, seismology, and astronomy. Although the study of astronomy then was limited to timekeeping and observation of stellar phenomena from telescopes, the Manila Observatory was widely praised for its work, so much so that it was considered one of the most advanced institutions anywhere east of the Mediterranean.

But this was in the 1890s—long before World War II, before the Manila Observatory lost everything in a fire in 1945. Though it was rebuilt after the war, the functions of the Manila Observatory were eventually split across separate institutions, and its meteorological and astronomical services found its place in PAGASA in 1972.

The next few years saw the development of astronomy in the Philippines slow to a halt. What happens next is a tale many of us have already heard, especially in developing nations rife with political turmoil. Despite efforts in the 60s and 70s to pursue space autonomy in the Philippines, a lack of proper funding, research, and homegrown experts hampered its growth in the country, and by the early aughts, our space education had been surpassed by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Though the late 2010s marked a renewed interest in space science and research with the launch of the first 100% Filipino-made micro-satellite and the recent establishment of the Philippine Space Agency, a lot of work still needs to be done to get ourselves on par with the rest of the world.

Amid these growing pains, a few brave souls continue to stand—individuals who, for the longest time, have watched over the stars for us, even when nobody else wanted to look up. It’s to them that we credit the progress we have now, no matter how infinitesimal it may be.

Everything began with the efforts of amateur astronomers.

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Read the full story in

GRID-Vol_09-One Day in the Philippines

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