Feature

The Traveling Astronomers

Heading

Filipino astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts are leading the way for space education in the Philippines. Away from the blinding lights of the city, they also find peace in the night sky.

Photography by
Jilson Tiu
Read Time
Location Tag
Originally Published In

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 stargazing. 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 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.

Members of the Philippine Astronomical Society set up a telescope as the sun sets


“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.

Starry night Tanay Rizal

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.

Philippine Astronomical Society members camping outside stargazing
The starry sky behind a silhouette of trees
Rain water on the tent's exterior
Mike Dee and Denise Gonsalves, under a lit up umbrella, observing a cloudy night sky

In the Philippines, astronomy has always been an afterthought; an add-on to our general science curriculum and nothing more.

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.

Galaxy and Orion's belt amid a sky of stars
A member of the Philippine Astronomical Society points a laser at the stars


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.

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; 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.

Members of the Philippine Astronomical Society by the sunset

In 1971, an American sergeant by the name of Philip D. Wyman wanted to put up an astronomy club in Manila to help promote the study of astronomy. Fortunately, it was a vision shared by other Filipinos. On April 15, 1971, in a modest apartment somewhere in Pasay City, seven people including Philip gathered to establish the country’s first hobby-led astronomy club: the Philippine Astronomical Society.

The vision of the club is simple: to promote scientific excellence among Filipinos by making the study of astronomy accessible to the general public. They conduct free lectures, monthly observations, and stargazing camps for students, teachers, and anyone with the willingness to learn. Young or old, scientist or not, everyone is encouraged to join—the only prerequisite is to have an open mind.

“The goal is to engage with people who may not necessarily be interested in science,” says Khristian Dimacali, the incumbent Education Committee Head of the Philippine Astronomical Society. “If they pursue the science, that’s great, but if all it leads to is them appreciating the role of science in our life, that’s enough,” he adds.

An advocate of science communication, Khristian is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Physics as a government scholar. Before becoming a full-time graduate student, he taught general science in a local high school, which is a little unexpected, if not entirely uncharacteristic. His slight frame and playful sense of humor made him look more like a laidback college student, especially as he stood clad in a simple t-shirt, jeans, and slippers. But as the night wore on, it became obvious that Khristian was a natural teacher, patient and articulate in explaining scientific concepts particularly to newcomers like me.

Morning dew on grass
Tents sprawled out around the camping grounds
Tents and a campfire
Bacon and eggs breakfast for the astronomers


The Philippine Astronomical Society is made up of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds. While there are those who proudly come from the sciences, there are also those who started as hobbyists. MJ Magallon is one of these people, an engineer-slash-astrophotographer who runs AstroPinas, an online page dedicated to teaching the basics of astrophotography.

For MJ, both hobbies grew alongside each other. He had always been interested in astronomy, but learned the language better when he started dabbling in night photography. Mostly self-taught, MJ now uses his platform to inform and inspire people to go stargazing in the Philippines.

“Not a lot of Filipinos think our country is a good place to go stargazing, but we actually have a lot of dark sites,” he says. “A lot of city-dwellers, for example, don’t think it’s possible to see the Milky Way so close to the city. But when you see a photo or go on a camp-out like this, it’s mind-blowing. That’s what happened to me, and I want other people to feel that way, too.”

Just last December, a few members of the society, including Khristian and MJ, traveled to Balut Island in Sarangani, to witness the globally-anticipated annular eclipse. While there, they took the time to teach the locals about the nature of eclipses and to debunk local myths and beliefs, like the ancient story of the sea serpent Bakunawa rising up to swallow the sun.

“Dati natatakot sila manood ng eclipse, pero noong naipaliwanag namin, mas na- appreciate at na-enjoy na nila ang pag-nood,” says Edmund, who was also present during the Sarangani viewing. “[Pag sa mga ganitong klaseng event kasi], gusto ko ding makita ng mga tao na ito yung part ng nature na di mo kayang burahin. Na [kailanman], mangyayari’t mangyayari yan.”

Sierra Madre rock formations as seen from Rizal

If we were to remove all current technologies influenced by space science and education—from the wireless internet we refuse to live without, to the x-ray machines that make healthcare easier—we would be left with almost nothing.

While the rest of the organizers are busy setting up the scopes for tonight’s viewing, I manage to rope in Edmund, Khristian, Bryan, and a few other members to sit on the grass with me as the sun makes its slow descent behind the mountains. It’s 5:30 P.M., and the mandatory camp orientation has just ended. We talk of beginnings, the history of local astronomy, and the future of the National Space Act.

At one point, Edmund cuts his answers short and shouts excitedly to the people behind us: “Look, satellite! Satellite! May bright satellite na dumadaan!” I look up and see a small white dot aimlessly floating across the sky; from the distance, it looks like a lost firefly. From one satellite, it gradually becomes two, then three. Then four.

“Ito usually yung time ng pagdaan ng satellites,” Edmund looks sideways at me, grinning. When I tell him that it’s my first time to ever see a satellite, he brushes it off.

“Nakakita ka na niyan, di mo lang siguro napansin,” he says. “After sunset and before sunrise, yun usually yung magic hour. Akala nga palagi ng mga tao UFO yan.”

It’s easy to imagine Edmund volunteering his time to talk about astronomy. He once went without sleep for 72 hours, conducting lectures in the day and observing the sky at night. It was in one of those lectures at The Manila Observatory where he’d met a young Khristian, whose interest in astronomy bloomed because of Edmund’s generous time.

“Kinulit namin siya nang buong gabing iyon, at sinagot niya lahat ng tanong namin,” Khristian recalls.

Edmund speaks with the enthusiasm of a young boy showing his mother his favorite toys; when he talks about astronomy, his voice rises a half-notch, and he ends every sentence a little breathless. He likes to explain with his hands; when he spoke about constellations and asterisms, he waved them across the sky, as though to make them appear.

Hours later, as the two of us stand underneath the starless sky, Edmund confesses to me how he first knew he loved the stars even when he was only three years old. While the rest of his family was watching television, he sat on an empty lot outside their house, gaping at the sky: “Yung langit, yun yung TV ko.”

In college, Edmund started volunteering for the PAGASA Observatory during the weekends, where he eventually connected with other astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. After witnessing the rare Halley’s Comet in 1986, he officially signed up to become a member of the Philippine Astronomical Society. Like most astronomy enthusiasts, Edmund wanted to pursue a career in astronomy, though no universities offered degrees at the time. Eventually, he found his chance, after winning a scholarship that sent him to receive his Master’s Degree in Japan.

Though he may not have fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Edmund takes pride in jetting off his own kinds of adventure; meeting teachers all over the world, and equipping them with the knowledge to teach their own students about the beauty and benefits of space science. “In [my own] small way, napapakita ko na yung astronomy ay para [talaga] sa lahat.”

The amount of money that goes into space education and exploration is no small matter. As the Philippines gears up to join the international space community, lawmakers have set aside as much as one billion pesos for the Philippine Space Agency to begin its operations, after which it will receive an annual fund of two billion pesos from the national government over the next five years.

For someone with no background in astronomy, it’s difficult to imagine what we could all gain from such a costly endeavour. Some have even argued addressing more pressing concerns instead.

But Edmund is right. If we were to remove all current technologies influenced by space science and education—from the wireless internet we refuse to live without, to the x-ray machines that make healthcare easier—we would be left with almost nothing. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most influential astronomers, puts it more colorfully: “[We’d be] in a state of untenable technological poverty, with bad eyes to boot, while getting rained on without an umbrella because of not knowing the satellite-informed weather forecast for the day.”

Still, these benefits don’t always happen with a snap of a finger. It’s often said that the short-term benefits of astronomy are scant, because the truth is, it takes a lot of time—ten, twenty, fifty years from now. Until then, it demands a lot of hard work and patience from experts, scientists, and enthusiasts who have to face backlash and criticism from people who may not always understand why this study matters, and why it matters today. But if the work never begins, how can success ever take flight?

Fortunately, no matter how cold, how cloudy, or how dark the night can get, there’s always bound to be an astronomer carefully watching the sky, whether from the confines of his home or out in the open air. It helps that it is so easy to grow a fondness for astronomy. To witness its beauty often sparks the curiosity to learn, like in the case of Edmund and Khristian. Despite all of the hard work, it does not take too much to keep the Philippine Astronomical Society going: a gasp of exclamation released at the sight of a meteor shower, or a new person willing to listen, another kindred spirit found.

Two weeks after our first camp-out, we find ourselves driving back to Tanay for another round of stargazing, hoping to be luckier with the weather this time around. A day before, Mike from the GRID team texts me a screenshot of the weather forecast, the numbers looking grim: 92% cloud cover, 25% precipitation. “We’re screwed,” he said, sad emoji attached.

Kashogi Astapan of the Philippine Astronomical Society
Edmund Rosales of the Philippine Astronomical Society
Khristian Dimacali of the Philippine Astronomical Society
Ian Cantero of the Philippine Astronomical Society
Current and former Executive Committee Members of the Philippine Astronomical Society from L-R, clockwise: Kashogi Astapan, Edmund Rosales, Khristian Dimacali, and Ian Cantero.

True enough, the drive up the mountains is bathed in a dull gray wash, and it looks like it’s about to rain. Thankfully, when we get to the campsite, the skies are clearer, although there are still a few wisps of clouds lurking behind the hill. I look around to find a familiar face missing. I ask Bryan and Khristian if Edmund will be joining us on the trip. They tell me he won’t.

“So who’s gonna stay up all night to teach us now?” I ask jokingly.

“Ayan, si K.D.,” Brian nudges Khristian. “Siya na ang bagong Sir Ed.”

Come nighttime, we get a view of what we’d missed out the first time around: clear dark skies, carrying the glittering ensemble. I spy the planet Venus, rising from the east, then the diagonal belt of the constellation Orion.

The conditions are a far cry from last time, but apart from the cloudless sky, there is also the matter of not having Edmund there. His absence is palpable: no animated lectures, no breathless bursts of facts and trivia. But there was Khristian—soft-spoken, yet equally resolute. For the next 30 or so minutes I don’t hesitate to fire question after question at him, which he all takes in stride. He even lends me his binoculars when I ask to see Pleiades, and points me to the center of the Taurus constellation. When I see it, I remember the stories of our ancestors, and I train my eyes to see what they see: a cage full of birds. A swarm of flies. A glittering rosary. A flower.

There are more things I want to ask him: how often do the stars change their position in the sky? How can they help us tell time and direction? Just how long did it take for you to memorize all of their names?

Luckily, the night is young, and this time, there are no clouds above us. After a warm and hearty dinner, Khristian invites us to sit with him in the middle of the clearing for a short lecture. We bring out our mats and sleeping bags and lie down on our backs, stars twinkling cheerfully above us. With everyone finally settled in, Khristian opens the scene: “Thousands of years ago, our ancestors believed that the stars were gods...”

--------------

This story was originally published as “Stars in Their Eyes” in GRID Vol. 09

View of the Sierra Madre at dawn

This story was originally published in

Volume 9 | One Day in the Philippines

Others Also Read these

Why aren’t there enough stories about the environment being published? One environmental reporter is taking his training and bringing it to young Filipinos.

Val Vestil on Writing Environmental Stories

Why aren’t there enough stories about the environment being published? One environmental reporter is taking his training and bringing it to young Filipinos.

Read More >>
Just a couple hours away from Metro Manila, the dive hotspot of Anilao is ready to welcome visitors.

Back to Anilao, Part II

Just a couple hours away from Metro Manila, the dive hotspot of Anilao is ready to welcome visitors.

Read More >>
Charisse Aquino Tugade goes with ANTHILL Fabric Gallery to see their work—and the lives they touched—in one of their partner communities in Abra.

The Way of the Weave

Charisse Aquino Tugade goes with ANTHILL Fabric Gallery to see their work—and the lives they touched—in one of their partner communities in Abra.

Read More >>

Watch & Listen:

Behind the scenes of the recent GRID Fashion Editorial with local surfers Mark Mabanag, Elaine Abonal, Ziggie C. Gonzales, and Bea Vega. We arrived on location, surfboards in tow, hoping to shoot them catching some waves.

GRID Issue 13: Behind the Scenes

Behind the scenes of the recent GRID Fashion Editorial with local surfers Mark Mabanag, Elaine Abonal, Ziggie C. Gonzales, and Bea Vega. We arrived on location, surfboards in tow, hoping to shoot them catching some waves.
Watch >>Listen >>
Up in Benguet, Session Groceries is bridging farmers and consumers together.

Session Groceries

Up in Benguet, Session Groceries is bridging farmers and consumers together.
Watch >>Listen >>
Team GRID talks about putting Volume 09 together, and why it was so important to share.

VOL. 09: One Day in the Philippines

Team GRID talks about putting Volume 09 together, and why it was so important to share.
Watch >>Listen >>

Related Products:

Issue 07 | Summer Adventures

Issue 07 | Summer Adventures

PHP 195 

If you’re looking for an adventure, our ultimate GRID summer guide has a few ideas, from running wild in the Cordilleras to freediving in Moalboal.
BUY
Volume 8 | Paths and Terrains

Volume 8 | Paths and Terrains

PHP 500 

This issue is an exploration of various paths and terrains, including the incredible story of mountaineer Carina Dayondon, the first Filipina to climb the highest mountain in every continent.
BUY
Volume 4 | The Fringe Issue

Volume 4 | The Fringe Issue

PHP 500 

From the folk healers of Siquijor to the bakwit artisans of Lanao del Sur, we explore the stories and destinations that exist comfortably where nobody is looking.
BUY