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Manila Observatory: A Stellar Legacy

Bamm Gabriana

The Manila Observatory is the country's first observatory. It also had the largest telescope in the country's history—a 19-inch refracting telescope along Padre Faura Street in Manila that was destroyed during the war.

Inside the Ateneo de Manila University campus along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, we find a building with a sprawling lawn overlooking the Marikina valley along its steep fault line. This is the Manila Observatory (MO), the oldest institution of scientific research in the Philippines. It was founded by no less than Father Federico Faura, fondly called Padre Faura (after whom the street was named), who set up its first headquarters in Manila.

The Observatory started as a small organization for meteorological research, which later on expanded to do research in astronomy and other sciences. The MO today does research in environmental issues and is an active partner of PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration), PHIVOLCS (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology), and other agencies in and outside the Philippines.

The Observatorio

In 1865, Padre Faura wanted to predict the passing of typhoons so as to prevent wide-scale damage. With help from his fellow Jesuits, he started the Observatorio Meteorologico de Manila (OMM) to begin serious scientific study on the Philippine weather.

The OMM soon expanded its field—it ventured into time service in 1885, seismology in 1887, and astronomy in 1889. The American government renamed it to Manila Observatory and made it the official weather bureau in 1901. For the next 50 years it would pursue numerous studies, win many awards, and even get featured in a 1940 National Geographic article on world-famous observatories!

The 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia described the MO as a leading research organization with some of the region's finest scientific instruments:

The observatory, besides a rich equipment of the latest meteorological instruments and seismographs, possesses a 19-inch refracting telescope, by far the largest in the Orient. The staff of the observatory includes five Jesuit fathers and twenty-five well-trained native assistants.

The same source tells about the first successes of the MO in meteorological forecasting:

On 7 July, 1879, Father Faura predicted that a baguío would pass over northern Luzon; the event justified his warning. It was the first time that the existence, duration, and course of a typhoon had been existed in the Far East. On 18 November of the same year, Father Faura predicted a second typhoon, which he said would pass through Manila. The announcement caused great consternation to the city. Proper precautions were taken, and the captain of the port forbade vessels to leave the harbour. Thanks to Father Faura, comparatively little damage was done in Manila, when, two days later, the storm broke in all its fury on the city. At other ports, to which warning of the approaching storm could not be sent for lack of telegraphic communication, the destruction was enormous. Forty-two vessels were wrecked in Southern Luzon alone, and many lives were lost.

First Big Step

The construction of a 19-inch refracting telescope and dome in 1897 in Manila marked the first big step in astronomy in the Philippines. Padre Faura died before the completion of the telescope, but his successors pursued his plans to the letter. In 1926, Spanish astronomer Father Miguel Selga from Georgetown University Observatory was assigned to the MO. The first professional astronomer to work in the Philippines, Father Selga studied the speed, color and rotation of variable stars, gave the first precise latitude and longitude of Manila, studied lunar and solar eclipses, and improved the time service.

In 1938, another young priest from Georgetown was assigned to Manila, German-American astronomer Reverend Francis J. Heyden (the Georgetown University Observatory was later renamed Heyden Observatory in his honor). After only a few years in the country, he was sent back to the US to pursue his doctorate in Astronomy. He was to be assigned as Chief Astronomer when he returns. Unfortunately, the Japanese-American war broke out, and he couldn't come back. During the war, the observatory building including the 19-inch telescope was completely destroyed. When Father Heyden finished his degree in 1945, he was reassigned to the Georgetown University Observatory in the US where he since became director and stayed there until he retired.

In the meantime, a new post-war Philippine government had reorganized the MO into the Weather Bureau in 1946. From 1946 to 1951 the MO ceased to exist. But in 1951 the Jesuits reorganized the observatory and established its new office in Baguio. Father Richard A. Miller, an American, was assigned as the new Chief Astronomer of the MO. From their Baguio City home, Father Miller did ionosphere, seismology, geomagnetism and solar studies, and did sunspot imaging and analysis using a 4-inch refractor. He continued his studies even after the observatory moved to its present location in Diliman in 1962.

Father Heyden's Legacy

When Father Heyden retired from the Georgetown University Observatory in 1972, he came back to Manila and rejoined the Manila Observatory. He continued Father Miller's research and became the new Chief Astronomer of the MO as well as chief of the Solar Studies Division of the observatory when Father Miller died.

Father Heyden initiated the construction of the 12-inch Heliostat, which included a spectroheliograph, and constructed a 10-inch Solar Telescope, so mounted so that it could not look at any object except the sun! He used these instruments to study sunspots, H-alpha flares, and 1-angstrom band center Calcium images.

During this time, a Solar Radio Telescope was also constructed. Father Victor Badillo also of the MO was assigned to the Solar Radio Telescope while Father Heyden worked on the Heliostat. Father Badillo was later reassigned to the Ionosphere Studies Division and the solar radio program was terminated.

At this point, Father Heyden had become recognized as the only professional astronomer in the Philippines, but somehow being an amateur never left him. He would bring out his 3.5-inch Questar telescope and show celestial objects to guests at the MO during stargazing sessions. He would also publish the yearly Planetary Chart and compute the Philippine ephemeris for celestial objects. His penchant for astronomical computations he passed on to his student Elmor Escosia who is now with PAGASA.

An Important Place

When Father Heyden died in 1991, the Solar Studies program was discontinued. Father Badillo took over the astronomy chores. He initiated the purchase of a new 8-inch reflector and an equatorial mount that was fixed onto the rooftop of the main building. This he would use to observe and show off deep sky objects to guests who would come to stargaze. Father Badillo also continued several of Father Heyden's projects, such as the creation and distribution of the annual Planetary Chart.

The Manila Observatory also became the new home of the PAS (Philippine Astronomical Society) which holds their regular meetings there. Father Badillo himself is an adviser of both the PAS and the newly formed ALP (Astronomical League of the Philippines). Although astronomy is no longer a priority of the MO after Father Heyden's death, the Manila Observatory continues to have an important place among amateur astronomers in the Philippines.

Research Partners:

The MO is an active partner of the following research organizations: The MO works in coordination with the following government agencies:

Contacting the Manila Observatory:

For inquiries, please contact:

The Director
Manila Observatory
Ateneo de Manila University Campus
Loyola Heights, Q.C. 1108 PH

Trunk Lines: +632.4265921 / 22 / 23 / 39
Fax Line: +632.4266141 and 4260837


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