Taiwan’s FormoSat-7 satellite collaboration with the United States is set to be launched out of Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida on June 22. Looking back, this past February was the space and science month for the American Institute in Taiwan’s (AIT) AIT@40 celebration. It was only two years ago that Taiwan succeeded in creating its own indigenous satellite—another achievement for advancing science and technology among Taiwan’s other successes in indigenously developing fighter aircraft, armored personnel, vehicles, and plans for submarines. This indigenously produced FormoSat-5 satellite was launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on August 24, 2017. With the successful of this satellite, Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO)–with support from Taiwan’s domestic companies, universities, and foreign partners–demonstrated Taiwan’s new and growing capabilities to design, manufacture, integrate, and test cutting-edge high-tech satellites.
Taiwan’s National Space Organization
Taiwan’s NSPO is responsible for the success of Taiwan’s indigenous FormoSat-5 satellite. Formed in 1991, it was renamed from Taiwan’s National Space Program Office to the current National Space Organization in 2005. Its headquarters are in Hsinchu in northern Taiwan, yet it has access to a spaceport in Chiu Peng Air Base in Pingtung, located in the southern part of Taiwan.
According to the organizational chart of the NSPO, the director general’s office oversees a variety of key areas, including the management of FormoSat-5 and FormoSat-7. The director general is responsible for overseeing various engineering functions, such as systems engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Engineering talent is channeled into the manufacturing of new satellites through the process of integration and testing, and product assurance for quality control. Even after a satellite’s launch, the director general’s office oversees flight control, satellite operations, and satellite imagery gathering. The office also handles routine business operation functions such as planning and promotion, administrative tasks, and finance and accounting.
The NSPO dedicated a large building to satellite integration and testing space components before launch. There are separate testing facilities for electromagnetic compatibility, thermal vacuum, mass property measurement, magnetic alignment, acoustics, vibration, satellite engineering, and satellite ground support. Such resources illustrate Taiwan’s impressive capacity in its space industry, with NSPO taking the lead.
After the launch, NSPO ground systems facilities monitor Taiwan’s satellites on a 24/7 basis. In the past, these included FormoSat-1, FormoSat-2, FormoSat-3, and other remote-sensing satellites. FormoSat-5 has also been included in this group after its successful launch in 2017. And FormoSat-7 will be included after its launch sometimes in 2019.
Specifically, ground system facilities include a satellite operations control center that is comprised of a ground communication network, mission operations, mission control, science data processing, and flight dynamics. Secondly, ground systems functions also include telemetry, tracking, and command stations. Thirdly, ground systems functions include imaging data acquisition systems such as x-band antenna and image processing.
In developing future innovative satellites, NSPO’s research and development (R&D) laboratories create new technologies through systems simulation, thermal control, microwave communication, data processing, attitude determination and control, electro-optics, structure development, electrical power, and multi-layer insulation. These are the key aspects of satellite technology all overseen by Taiwan’s NSPO.
To take FormoSat-5 as an example, SpaceX created a video presentation that included a segment from Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO) to introduce FormoSat-5 in the minutes leading to its launch. The video explained that FormoSat-5 would operate in a sun-synchronous orbit at 720 km above the earth’s surface. The satellite has payload components such as a remote sensing instrument (RSI) for earth observation, advanced ionospheric probe (AIP) for scientific research, onboard computer (OBC), and power and distribution unit (PCDU). NSPO explains that FormoSat-5 was designed, manufactured, integrated, and tested at NSPO facilities in Taiwan in collaboration with Taiwan’s private companies and universities.
How Taiwan’s Private Industries and Academic Institutions Develop Space Technology
Taiwan’s NSPO works closely with Taiwan’s companies and universities to produce satellites such as FormoSat-5. In a general sense, these companies provide NSPO with solar panels suitable for space, solid-state signal transmitters, complementary metal oxide semiconductors, sensors, special structural materials, transmission equipment, and gallium nitride (GaN) wafers.
Specifically, Taiwan’s companies such as Jiuhong International provide imaging software; Gongzhun Precision provides landing gear components, engine related components, and other precision machining components; Hongcheng Power offers nano-tungsten lubrication technology for space; King Design Industrial specializes in vibration, shock, and drop testing, etc. This is a small sample of the expertise available to Taiwan’s government by Taiwan’s high-tech industry.
The companies in Taiwan that work closely with Taiwan’s NSPO include Jiuhong International (久鴻國際), Chunghwa Telecom International Branch (中華電信國際分公司), Gongzhun Precision (公準精密), Hongcheng Power (宏誠動力), King Design Industrial (金頓科技), Fangxing Technology (芳興科技), Promotion of Space Technology (晉陞太空科技), Lingqun Computer (凌群電腦), Dean Technology (得安科技), Yanmao Composites (莘茂複材), Jieyang Avionics (捷揚航電), Chuangfu Technology (創未來科技), Chuangyuhangtai (創宇航太), Micro-image Technology (微像科技), Dayun Technology (達雲科技), Jingwei Hangtai (經緯航太), Guangshuo System (廣碩系統), Hongwei Technology (鴻緯科技), Baodi Technology (寶瀛科技), and Hanxiang (漢翔).
Taiwan’s NSPO also works closely with universities, most notably with National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Tainan. In November 2017, NCKU held an international symposium titled “Toward the International Cooperation for Taiwan’s Space Economy and Technology Development.” The event featured the business community in Tainan, the NSPO, and scholars and experts from Canada, Japan, and EU countries. On an ongoing basis, NCKU is deeply involved in practical areas of space cooperation with NSPO and also the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, helping to develop a new space weather monitoring and forecasting system to prevent disruption of satellite signals in the ionosphere over 100 km away from earth.
Prime Contractor Aspect of Indigenous Development
In addition to Taiwan’s domestic companies, Taiwan also works closely with foreign partners for its indigenous satellite programs with a relationship like a prime contractor toward subcontractors. This practice is much like Taiwan’s other famous cutting edge indigenous programs such as the Indigenous Defense Fighter aircraft, and Indigenous Defense Submarine program which enjoy broad participation by companies in Taiwan and overseas.
While Taiwan’s indigenous FormoSat-5 satellite was indeed designed, manufactured, integrated, and tested in Taiwan by the NSPO, there are indicators that foreign companies were also part of the process. For instance, after the satellite was placed in space, the optical calibration instrument onboard FormoSat-5 malfunctioned and therefore attracted public attention during the repair process. It was through this process that the optical calibration instrument was described as “purchased from abroad.” It is most likely that many other key components were also purchased abroad since it can make sense to buy it commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) rather than creating a new one; this would be akin to re-inventing the wheel.
Cooperation with the United States and other foreign partners for components, even for Taiwan’s indigenous satellites, make senses in terms of cost savings. To borrow an example from the automotive industry, it is common knowledge that Tesla cars are designed, manufactured, integrated, and tested by Tesla often at its manufacturing plant in the San Francisco Bay Area and their cars are unique from other leading brands. Yet, Tesla doesn’t redesign and re-manufacture every component. As one of the founders of Tesla explained about the early days of Tesla, you “don’t have to have an engineering group trying to remake a windshield wiper motor […], the human and financial costs would be way too much.” These components are already available commercial-off-the-shelf from the United States and other international partners, and it saves money and resources to use them instead of re-inventing them.
While Taiwan created its first indigenous satellite FormoSat-5 by working with local universities, Taiwan companies, and foreign companies, it was launched by SpaceX and successfully deployed in August 2017. As Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO) takes the lead on Taiwan’s space programs, it plays the role of a prime contractor to integrate components from subcontractors from Taiwan’s domestic companies, universities, as well as the United States, and other foreign companies. It follows a track record of indigenously developed capabilities, from the Indigenous Defense Fighter aircraft in the 1980s, to FormoSat-5 in 2017, and anticipation of Taiwan Indigenous Defense Submarine program coming in the 2020s.
This article on Taiwan’s indigenous space industry is the first of three articles examining US-Taiwan space cooperation. The second article will cover aspects of US-Taiwan space cooperation, and the third one will consider the promises and challenges of greater US-Taiwan space cooperation in the future.
The main point: Launched in 2017, Formosat-5 was Taiwan’s first indigenously produced satellite, which came together through close cooperation between Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO) and over a dozen of Taiwan’s private companies, universities, and foreign partners.