Taiwan’s first domestically developed remote sensing satellite, Formosat-5, yesterday launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after six years of work by the National Space Organization (NSPO).
It was the first time the NSPO has taken on the task of designing, developing and engineering a satellite in the more than two decades since the organization’s establishment.
Former NSPO director-general Hang Guey-shin (張桂祥) said in an interview that what is now a proud accomplishment for the NSPO team was originally a last resort.
Photo: CNA, courtesy of NSPO
In 2006, the organization commissioned the development of two remote sensing satellites.
The first, which would become Formosat-5, was to be developed by the agency with the guidance of a foreign space company, Chang said.
However, on the day when bidding for the project was to take place, no one showed up, leaving the Taiwanese team no choice but to do everything on its own.
That was the start of Formosat-5, which from today is to replace Formosat-2 in its mission to monitor and provide surveillance data for national security and disaster relief, as well as for technological and academic purposes.
Chang said he initially expected that acquiring component parts for the program would be difficult, given the Formosat-2 team had “only seen, but not touched” the sensors, chips and computers on the satellite.
As it turned out, the main challenge lay in the assembly of the satellite, which required skills that had been largely kept a trade secret by the international space industry, Chang said.
Chang said he knew that his team had to keep going.
After all, it was a project with a NT$3 billion (US$99.2 million) budget, he said.
Under the guidance of the National Applied Research Laboratories, the NSPO recruited personnel from high-tech industries, research institutes and private firms to form a team to execute the program.
Over the next six years, collaboration between different industrial sectors in Taiwan enabled the development of components for the project, including the Advanced Ionospheric Probe developed by National Central University and the remote sensing instrument.
The challenges did not end when configuration of the project was complete, Chang said, adding that the team encountered difficulties every step of the way, but eventually, the challenges were overcome.
Testing the satellite proved particularly difficult, as the slightest vibration from the highway near the space program’s warehouse affected optical testing results, Chang said.
More importantly, it had to be proved that the satellite was sturdy enough to withstand the extreme conditions and temperatures of outer space, Chang added.
On Oct. 16, 2015, the agency announced that Formosat-5 had passed the space environment and function tests, thereby qualifying it to replace Formosat-2, which by that time was six years overdue for retirement.
The final hurdle came on Sept. 1 last year, when the Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to carry Formosat-5 into space exploded during preparations for a static fire test at Cape Canaveral.
The mini-satellite, which is 2m high and 1.2m wide, reflects how far space technology research has come in Taiwan since the 1990s, astronomer and National Museum of Natural Science director-general Sun Wei-hsin (孫維新) said.
However, the nation still has a long way to go to develop a vibrant space industry, Sun said.
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