Taiwan’s Space Program Blasts Off

Cooperation with the United States will be a cornerstone of the island’s increasingly ambitious forays into space.

Taiwan is stepping up cooperation with the United States in satellite technology in a bid to broaden the scope of its little known 25-year-old space program.

Washington and Taipei will jointly fund the US$400 million FORMOSAT-7 mission (known in the United States as COSMIC-2), which will involve launching 12 satellites into space in the largest collaborative space mission between the two countries to date. By analyzing atmospheric changes to GPS satellite signals, the FORMOSAT-7 sensors will provide data useful for monitoring climate change and improving the accuracy of weather forecasts.

The FORMOSAT-7 mission will boost data collection capability to around 8,000 readings daily from the current 2,000, which will be a boon for global scientific research efforts. “The program is an extraordinary example of our cooperation,” said Kin Moy, Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which represents U.S. interests in Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, speaking at AmCham Taipei’s Annual General Meeting in November.

U.S. agencies, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are collaborating with Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO) on the program. Hsinchu-based NSPO is affiliated with Taiwan’s National Applied Research Laboratories (NARLabs) and is supervised by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

For the new mission, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) radio occultation (RO) payload is being developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), while the U.S. Air Force will provide two space weather payloads that will fly on the first six satellites.

FORMOSAT-7 will involve the launching of six satellites by NASA into low-inclination orbits in 2016, and another six satellites into high-inclination orbits in 2018.

“The value of RO for climate monitoring and research is demonstrated by the precise and consistent observations between different instruments, platforms, and missions,” according to a research note in the 2008 COSMIC/FORMOSAT-3 Mission: Early Results report.

A model of the FORMOSAT-3 satellite used to gather data for weather forecasting and studying climate change.
A model of the FORMOSAT-3 satellite used to gather data for weather forecasting and studying climate change.

Data gathered from the FORMOSAT-3 mission “have been extremely useful to scientists all over the world,” says Fred Brust, AIT’s Environment, Science, Technology and Health Officer. He notes that the data “allow scientists to analyze what the atmosphere is doing and what it consists of, which is beneficial for meteorology and climatology.”

Orbiting 500 miles above Earth, the satellites take more than 2,000 daily measurements in a nearly uniform distribution. The satellites have been especially valuable for their ability to fill a void in data collection, as they are able to operate over large ocean stretches where there are no weather balloons. Additionally, since their signals can penetrate thick cloud cover and precipitation, data gathering is unaffected by weather conditions.

The satellite system is currently providing global data to more than 1,000 users globally, with researchers and forecasters having access to the mission data within a few hours of the observations.

Indigenous development

Taiwan began its space program in 1991 and has sent eight satellites into space in cooperation with the United States. Currently, only the FORMOSAT-2 and FORMOSAT-3 satellites are in operation.

FORMOSAT-2, which is comprised of systems built by several Taiwanese companies and France’s EADS Astrium SAS, is an Earth observation mission. Launched in May 2004, the satellite orbits at about 880 kilometers above the planet. It is able to photograph a land area 10 times the size of Taiwan daily and resolve objects as small as two meters in black and white and eight meters in color.

Chang Guey-Shin, director general of the National Space Organization.
Chang Guey-Shin, director general of the National Space Organization.

A key objective for Taiwan’s space program is to develop satellites indigenously “because nobody wants to sell satellite technology to us,” says Chang Guey-Shin, director general of the NSPO. “There’s a lot of sensitive technology [related to a country’s national security] involved,” he says. That means “the risk is high that a sale won’t be approved in the end.”

With the solar-powered FORMOSAT-5, Taiwan has finally developed remote-sensing satellite technology of its own, he notes. “This is our first space program in which the NSPO is responsible for the complete satellite system including payloads,” he says.

NSPO has tapped Taiwan’s acumen in semiconductor and electronics manufacturing to develop a five-band multi system-on-chip complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor – the world’s first such space-grade sensor, Chang explains. That sensor has an advantage in terms of cost, electricity conservation, and speedy transmission of signals, he notes.

FORMOSAT-5 will be a five-year follow-up earth observation mission to FORMOSAT-2, tasked with gathering data for natural disaster evaluation, environmental monitoring, international rescue operations, and ocean surveillance. The satellite is expected to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the first quarter of 2016.

The secondary payload of FORMOSAT-5 is equipped with an advanced ionospheric probe developed by Taiwan’s National Central University (NCU). The probe provides the highest spatial resolution of ionospheric parameters in the world, and will also be useful for collecting data to forecast earthquakes, according to NCU.

Mitigating natural disasters

Taiwan’s space program has long played an important role in the wake of natural disasters in Asia, says the NSPO’s Chang. After a huge earthquake struck China’s southwestern Sichuan province in May 2008, NSPO programmed FORMOSAT-2 to acquire the first optical satellite images of the hardest-hit area. NSPO then distributed the images to agencies worldwide for humanitarian purposes.

Those images helped China to avoid potential further catastrophe from landslide dams, Chang says. During the earthquake, huge amounts of earth were knocked loose from the steep mountain slopes and fell to the narrow valleys below. The landslide deposits dammed a large river just north of Beichuan, one of the towns with the worst earthquake damage, causing concern that massive flooding could be triggered if the dam were to give way due to the build-up of water pressure or destabiliziation from an aftershock.

“The images from FORMOSAT-2 helped the Chinese to evaluate the severity of the flooding risk and evacuate people from low-lying areas,” Chang says.

In another case, following the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011, NSPO forwarded images of the stricken area taken by FORMOSAT-2 to Sentinel Asia, an organization that supports disaster management in the region.

Because of its atypical orbit, FORMOSAT-2 is the only satellite able to capture high-resolution images of the same point every day. That unique ability enabled the global community to follow the evolution of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami disaster on a daily basis for at least a week, Chang notes. Data gathered from the satellite’s images helped ground crews and emergency teams during rescue efforts and as they assessed damage to infrastructure, he adds.

Given Taiwan’s own susceptibility to earthquakes, NARLabs established a Tsunami Early Warning System and Disaster Scenario Database from 2011 to 2014. The system is able to predict where a tsunami would be most likely to strike in Taiwan, as well as the maximum wave height and average degree of inundation. Based on those predictions, it suggests alert levels for different areas of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, cooperation between the United States and Taiwan in satellite technology will continue to deepen, says AIT’s Brust. The fruitful results of the FORMOSAT-3 mission have provided strong impetus for FORMOSAT-7, he observes. “The first mission has been so valuable,” he says. “Increasing daily data readings from 2,000 to 8,000 has been a real game changer.”

For Taiwan, whose participation in the international arena is restricted by political pressures, collaboration with the United States puts the island “at the center of a global scientific network” as Washington tackles the problem of climate change, Brust notes. “No bigger scientific priority exists for the United States right now than climate change.”

And for Washington, Taiwan’s “high level of technical expertise” in satellite construction and willingness to invest heavily in the mission make it an ideal partner, Brust adds.

During his remarks at AmCham Taipei’s Annual General Meeting in November, AIT Director Moy said: “The U.S. and Taiwan have jointly invested US$400 million in a satellite program that will directly benefit both our economies and societies, but will also make important contributions to science. The lesson I took away from my visit [to the NSPO headquarters in Hsinchu] was that when the United States and Taiwan combine our talents, ingenuity and resources, the things we build together can compete on quality with anything out there.”