Taiwan Launches Its First Home-Grown Satellite
Satellites, once the domain of a handful of national space agencies, have become smaller and more affordable, leading to more accessible satellite-based ventures. The recent launch of Formosat-5, the first space mission entirely manufactured on the island, was a major milestone for Taiwan’s space program.
Taiwan Launches Its First Home-Grown SatelliteBy Kai-yuan Teng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 630 )
At 2:51 a.m. on August 25, Formosat-5 was successfully launched into mission orbit from the U.S. Vandenberg Air Force Base by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Ahead of the much-anticipated launch, we toured Taiwan's National Space Organization (NSPO) in Hsinchu to dig deeper into the story behind Taiwan’s first home-grown satellite.
（Source：CBS Los Angeles）
Taiwan's aerospace ambitions go back to 1991, when the Executive Yuan drew up the first stage of the National Space Program. Following the founding of the National Space Program Office, which was subsequently renamed National Space Organization, the predecessors of Formosat-5, which contained many components from abroad, were developed one after another.
The earlier satellites had different missions, such as collecting meteorological data or mapping the impacts of disasters. Formosat-5, which circles the earth every 99 minutes, will explore the ionosphere, taking images with a Taiwan-made, high-resolution remote sensing instrument.
To produce such high-resolution images, a giant lens is needed to focus light, as well as antennas made from pure gold to transmit electronic signals. Also required is a satellite computer that processes the images, and other components.
Developing such precision instruments that can operate in space poses massive challenges. During the launch of the payload, they must be able to withstand up to 20 times the force of gravity (a fighter jet take off involves up to 10 G). While orbiting the Earth at 720-kilometer altitude, temperature differences can reach up to plus/minus 120 degrees Celsius. At the same time, the satellite and its payloads must withstand strong space radiation, and designers must bear in mind that components that break down cannot be repaired.
A Home-grown Satellite
Then NSPO Director General Guey-shin Chang notes that, although Taiwan has accumulated rich satellite manufacturing experience since Formosat-1, design as well as technology and key components for the earlier satellites had to be procured from abroad.
This presented a problem for Taiwan because aerospace technology falls under strict export controls. The decisions as to whether Taiwan can buy relevant technologies are always in someone else’s hands. “We asked our consultants to learn from others, but when the talks touched on important points, people wouldn’t say anything,” remarks Chang with an exasperated sigh.
As procuring satellites proved difficult on many fronts, the NSPO brought together more than fifty companies and technology partners seven years ago to design and manufacture Taiwan’s own satellite. With Formosat-5, this project has come to fruition.
Independently designing the optical sensing instrument proved to be the toughest challenge. The optical sensing instrument converts the light received by the satellite lens into electronic signals that are sent back to Earth. The quality of this instrument directly affects the sharpness of the images.
Since the technology for highly sensitive sensors remained in the hands of a few large transnational companies, the researchers in Taiwan continued to hit a wall, and the NSPO eventually decided to change course.
According to Chang, optical sensing instruments usually use charge coupled device (CCD) technology, common in the semiconductor industry. Although Taiwan is a major manufacturer of semiconductors, it does not possess its own CCD technology. However, Taiwan is a world leader in CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology.
That’s why Taoyuan-based Liscotech System Co. Ltd. caught the eye of the NSPO. A few years ago, Liscotech had provided its CMOS technology to help India manufacture products for its moon-exploration program. Based on this experience, Liscotech and the NSPO developed an image sensor with a higher resolution and larger dimensions.
Chao Yei-chin, professor at the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, notes that Formosat-5 does not have the best resolution when it comes to single images, but for images shot in sequence, its performance stands out.
The design of the satellite’s conducting wires presented the second challenge.
Way-jin Chen, NSPO division director who is in charge of the Formosat-5 Integration and Testing Plan and Implementation, recalls that they once tested if the conducting wires could operate normally in a high-temperature environment for thousands of hours at a time. “We thought that wires made of 99.9 percent pure gold would suffice, but during testing they would fall off. We only found out much later that we need material of an even higher 99.99 percent purity to meet the requirements for a space environment.”
Taiwan’s Aerospace Industry Takes off
Noting that virtually all components used for Formosat-5 were made in Taiwan, Chao is confident that the satellite could be further commercialized in the future.
Aside from the NSPO, several Taiwanese startups are eying the aerospace industry.
At the just-concluded Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition (TADTE) 2017 held in Taipei, satellites and launch rockets featured prominently alongside airplane engines and armored vehicles.
Andy Liu, business development manager at Taipei-based Persistent Systems Ltd., one of the TADTE exhibitors, shows off the point-by-point tracking of a seagoing vessel on his laptop display. From the satellite itself to the software and system integration, this satellite positioning system for tracking vessels was developed in collaboration with Taoyuan-based Letscom International Company, Ltd. and National Ocean University.
In the past, global positioning systems relied on large, very costly satellites for signal reception. But in recent years, so-called cube satellites, which are much smaller in size and can be produced at low cost, have become popular. These lightweight satellites typically weigh between one and ten kilograms, whereas conventional satellites have a weight of more than 1,000 kilograms. As a result, the threshold for entry into the aerospace industry has become much lower.
Letscom general manager Randson Huang points out that the affordable, jointly developed GPS can be installed on vessels at sea, vehicles on land, and even birds in the sky. Such a microchip could send signals to a cube satellite to track any moving thing as it travels.
Persistent’s Liu observes that it takes several billion New Taiwan dollars to manufacture a conventional satellite, whereas cube satellites can be produced at a fraction of these costs thanks to a high degree of modularization. A cube satellite can be made at a cost of NT$5 million to NT$10 million
As Chao notes, private sector involvement in the aerospace industry is booming in recent years because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States has been aggressively opening up access to technologies and personnel, inviting tech industry leaders such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to participate in space programs.
The Nangang Software Park in Taipei is also home to an aerospace startup.
On a table at Liscotech System Co. Ltd. sits a robot that looks like a tiny telescope. It is an intelligent vision system for industrial use.
Liscotech was originally a manufacturer of industrial vision systems and on-board computers for American and Japanese police cars; the company only recently forayed into the aerospace industry. Presently, three commercial satellites that are orbiting the Earth are equipped with the company’s MicroEye image system.
From Earth to Space
Liscotech General Manager Jack Chen, who will turn 60 this year, looks back on a career of over three decades in the computer parts and components industry. In the past decade, he expanded into industrial computers. Liscotech was established in 2015 by a team of eight founders, including Chen. Chen points out that the company crossed over into the aerospace industry at the request of some customers. A group of former NASA employees who had founded a company with some of their old customers knocked on Liscotech’s door and asked them to design an industrial computer system for them.
“In the beginning, we only felt that the specifications were rather special. We learned only later that these former NASA members had seen the era of satellite commercialization coming, so they used parts and components from other industries to manufacture satellites, bringing down satellite development and production costs significantly. Previously, you needed to spend several billion New Taiwan dollars to buy a satellite, but now it is possible [to buy one] for NT$10 million,” explains Chen.
Compared with the mass-produced computer industry, satellite production involves very small quantities but has a different significance for the manufacturer, according to Chen. “We did ODM (Original Design Manufacturing) our whole lives, so we knew the computers even better than our clients, but the engineers forgot how to think. We wanted to do something that is different, and this (satellites) was just what we were looking for.”
The specifications for aerospace products are different for several reasons, posits Chen. First, they must withstand the damaging effects of space radiation. Second, they must be energy-efficient because electric power is not readily available in outer space. Third, since parts that become defective cannot be repaired, they must be extremely reliable. The circuit breaker system, for instance, must be designed for quick automatic shut down and fast restart in the event of a threat from the invisible onslaught of space radiation.
Does Taiwan have the capability to develop its own aerospace industry? Chao explains that the aerospace industry comprises satellite manufacturing as well as satellite services, and Taiwan has been involved in both. Taiwan possesses very good hardware manufacturing technology, and if Taiwan intends to engage in design based on aerospace specifications, going into space is not impossible; the only thing that Taiwan lacks is a space mission track record.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz