US-Taiwan Space Cooperation: Formosat, AMS, and the ISS Computer

US-Taiwan Space Cooperation: Formosat, AMS, and the ISS Computer

US-Taiwan Space Cooperation: Formosat, AMS, and the ISS Computer

President Tsai Ing-wen announced that FormoSat-7—the satellite cluster collaboration between Taiwan and the United States—was transported from Taiwan to the United States on April 15 in preparation for launch on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The satellite will be launched later this month on June 22, and, according to President Tsai, it is the most significant collaborative program between Taiwan and the United States in the space sector. Development of the satellite involved close cooperation between Taiwan’s National Space Program Office (NSPO) and the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Costs were divided evenly between the United States and Taiwan, with each paying $100 million US dollars for a total of $200 million US dollars. FormoSat-7 is the latest example of US-Taiwan cooperation spanning two decades that in the past included the development of equipment currently on the International Space Station (ISS) such as a computer and an alpha magnetic spectrometer (AMS). [1]

US-Taiwan Space Cooperation through FormoSat-7

The upcoming Formosat-7 launch will place a new cluster of six satellites developed in close collaboration between the United States and Taiwan to more effectively detect shifts in weather patterns. Each satellite is equipped with a receiver that measures physical properties of the atmosphere and also receives positioning signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russian GLOSNASS satellites. They also have ion velocity meters that directly measure the temperature, velocity, and angle of ions in the path of each satellite. Radio frequency beacons on each satellite measure irregularities of electron densities in the ionosphere. Together, the six satellites collect 4,000 profiles of the earth’s atmosphere per day, which is over three times more than the existing FormoSat-3 cluster. In addition to the receiver, each satellite also carries an on-board computer, power control unit, and a fiber optic gyroscope.

Specifically, within the US government, NOAA has been working closely with Taiwan’s NSPO to jointly build Formosat-7. NSPO is responsible for managing mission operations, the data processing center in Taiwan, and the satellite constellation. NOAA handles managing the launch vehicle system through SpaceX, scientific payloads, overseeing some of the ground stations, and the data processing center in the United States. In addition, the collaborative framework includes some NOAA responsibilities such as some data applications, certain NSPO responsibilities such as aspects of satellite development, and some responsibilities handled by both sides such as ground and mission operations.

The FormoSat-7 program has been nearly a decade in the works. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is the de facto US embassy in Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, signed the FormoSat-7 agreement with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Resource Office (TECRO) in 2010. The mission was defined with a requirement review completed by 2011. The UK’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. won the contract bid to provide the satellite bus—which is the frame of the satellite that holds the components together. The first satellite was assembled in 2014, and the remaining satellites were completed in 2016. Taiwan’s government then announced that the cluster of FormoSat-7 satellites would be launched by SpaceX out of Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

After the launch of the cluster of six FormoSat-7 satellites in June, the United States and Taiwan will continue to cooperate to track and gather data from the satellites using ground stations around the world. Taiwan provides space telemetry with its tracking and command stations in Tainan and Chungli. However, Taiwan’s stations in Northeast Asia do not cover enough geography across the globe to fulfill the requirement of having less than 30 minutes of lag between data transmitted from the satellite to stations on the ground or at sea. Therefore, the US’ role is to provide remote tracking stations around the world to receive satellite signals: partially through its international partners on land, but mostly through US ships at sea. This data from the cluster of FormoSat-7 satellites is then transmitted to data processing centers in Taiwan’s Satellite Operations and Control Center and other processing centers in the United States. In addition, Taiwan’s government makes this satellite data available online to the public through its Taiwan Analysis Center for COSMIC (TACC)—COSMIC being another name Taiwan’s government calls FormoSat.

Originally, six more satellites were planned to bring FormoSat-7 to a total of 12 satellites, but both the United States and Taiwan cancelled the additional satellites due to budget constraints. The orbit trajectory of the first set of six satellites allows them to cover half the earth focused on the area around the equator, while the second set would have covered the area around the north and south poles. Even though the second set of satellites is temporarily cancelled, the project theoretically could be revived and satellites launched later, if both sides have a need for such additional coverage of the earth’s surface.

Other Examples of US-Taiwan Space Cooperation: AMS, ISS Computer, Moon Lander

While FormoSat-7 described above is an example of a close US-Taiwan cooperation aiming to build a satellite cluster, its predecessor—FormoSat-5—is an earlier example of US-Taiwan cooperation through a satellite launch. SpaceX launched both Taiwan’s indigenously built satellite Formosat-5, as well as Formosat-7 that was the result of close US-China collaboration. The past Formosat-5 sailed into space on a Falcon 9 two stage rocket, while the future launch of Formosat-7 will be on a Falcon Heavy rocket.

In addition to jointly building and launching satellites, the United States and Taiwan have cooperated in other ways such as developing an international space station (ISS) computer. This SG100 cloud computer was built in Taiwan after it won NASA’s international bidding process. The computer performs complex cloud-based computations. The ISS computer was the product of collaboration within Taiwan’s National Chungshan Institute for Science and Technology (NCSIST), Academia Sinica, and National Central University. It was successfully launched in 2017, and if it passes initial trials in space, then Taiwan could be contracted by NASA to build its next generation space mission computers.

Prior to the ISS computer, Taiwan was a key actor in multinational collaboration to build the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which was launched and placed on the International Space Station in 2011. The AMS device is a particle physics detector that is currently bolted onto the International Space Station as an external module. It is designed to find signs of dark matter, which is the invisible and mysterious material thought to make up most of the universe’s mass. According to the AMS project leader Samuel Ting, who is also a Nobel laureate and an MIT professor who spent his formative years in Taiwan, the AMS “electronic systems used in the program have been made and tested in Taiwan.” As such, Taiwan has played a key part in this project worth $1.5 billion US dollars, which involved the work of 600 scientists from 56 institutions and 16 countries.

In addition, Taiwan was on track to build a lunar lander for NASA before the project was cancelled. Taiwan’s NCSIST was to build the lunar lander planned for NASA’s Resource Prospector mission in the first mining expedition to the moon that was supposed to be launched in the early 2020s. NCSIST was supposed to complete the task with a slim budget of $46 million US dollars. Unfortunately, NASA cancelled the single Resource Prospector mission because it instead wants to plan a series of missions to the moon rather than a single mission.

The extent of US-Taiwan space cooperation spans from the Formosat-7 cluster of jointly produced satellites, extending back to the ISS computer in 2017, and AMS in 2011. Looking forward, Taiwan’s NCSIST would have built NASA’s lunar lander for a resource prospector mission to be held in the early 2020s if it was not cancelled. For these projects, Taiwan’s NCSIST, Academia Sinica, and others in Taiwan work together with the US’ NASA, NOAA, and others. With the upcoming launch of Formosat-7 in the next several weeks, President Tsai touts that it will present a tangible result of the biggest ever collaboration program between Taiwan and the United States, and an accomplishment that both sides will surely be proud of.

The main point: The upcoming launch of Formosat-7 on June 22 is a vivid example of US-Taiwan space cooperation between Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO) and the US’ National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Other notable examples of US-Taiwan collaboration spanning the past decade include Taiwan’s participation in the development of the alpha magnetic spectrometer on the international space station (ISS), as well as a computer for the ISS.

[1] My previous article discussed Taiwan’s indigenous satellite industry using the example of FormoSat-5 launched in August 2017. This article will cover aspects of US-Taiwan space cooperation, and the third article in this series will consider the p