What is happening in the space sector in Taiwan?

It used to be that space missions were carried out by large governments. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow led humanity’s engagement with space. Today, more people around the world are able to participate in space exploration. Taiwan may not come to mind immediately when thinking of space science, but it has a growing space sector that leverages Taiwan’s previous experience with mass production. We spoke to Professor Loren Chang of the Institute of Space Science and Engineering at National Central University. He shared his perspective on how Taiwan’s space sector has developed and where it is going.

What is the status of Taiwan’s space sector?

Like many countries, Taiwan’s involvement in space science research began with the International Geophysical Year of 1957/1958. The IGY also gave rise to the launch of humanity’s first satellites: Sputnik and Explorer 1. Though taking place against the backdrop of the Cold War, the purpose of the two spacecraft was to explore the physics of the near-Earth space environment.

The first seeds of space science research in Taiwan were planted with participation in IGY. This led to the formation of university programs in space physics research, such as the program at my home institution of National Central University (NCU). Also emerging from IGY was research and development in aerospace systems for defense purposes, at organizations such as the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science & Technology (a military R&D organization) and the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (a state-run aerospace company). Together, these organizations formed the scientific and technological foundation for Taiwan’s space program.

In 1991, Taiwan established its National Space Program Office (now known as the National Space Organization). NSPO has worked with the academic community to develop large satellites and payloads for space physics and remote sensing missions. This resulted in the development of the FORMOSAT-1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 missions, as well as a series of sounding rocket missions. FORMOSAT-3 and FORMOSAT-7 (also known as COSMIC-1 and 2) are each six-satellite constellations for atmospheric and ionospheric science that were jointly developed with the US University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. The earlier spacecraft in the FORMOSAT program were mostly purchased from foreign contractors. As time has progressed, though, the proportion of indigenous components has increased, notably with FORMOSAT-5.

It can be said that until about five years ago, Taiwan’s space sector was dominated primarily by large satellites developed with funding from NSPO. Although Taiwanese companies and universities were involved in the development of some spacecraft components, subsystems, and payloads, this involvement depended on public funding. Many large Taiwanese electronics firms were involved in spacecraft component development, but the components were not commercialized. As a result, development was often on a one-time basis and was not sustainable.

This has begun to change over the past five years with the advent of growing interest in the NewSpace economy and the emergence of large low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations. These two issues have implications for mass production and generate new needs for applying space weather research. Multiple universities are now working on small satellite programs. Many Taiwanese companies are interested in applying our past experience with mass production in the electronics and telecommunications industries, but now with a focus on NewSpace.

What are plans for future growth?

Public, private, and academic space programs are benefitting from President Tsai Ing-Wen’s emphasis on developing the aerospace and defense sector. Another catalyst is the international trend towards megaconstellations of LEO satellites. On the commercial side, there are already many Taiwanese original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) accepting contracts from companies such as SpaceX to mass produce component-level electronic, mechanical, and telecommunications devices for space applications. This can be considered to be an extension of the work these companies have performed in the past as OEMs in the electronics and mobile telecommunications sectors. There is also a growing interest in Taiwan’s dominant semiconductor industry for developing space-grade solar cells.

There is a growing awareness in Taiwan that we cannot continue to rely on the OEM and component mass production models of the past. This has led to a push into the development of more sophisticated products such as specialized satellite optical sensor systems, as well as ground station systems for spacecraft tracking, telemetry, and communications. There has correspondingly been a push by small and medium enterprises to develop small satellites for AIS and ADS-B tracking (which relate to Internet of Things, or IoT), and even launch services. Most prominent among these firms is Taiwan Innovative Space (TiSPACE), which is developing hybrid engine sounding rockets and small satellite launch vehicles. Their first launch is planned for this year.

On the public and academic side of things, there are now multiple universities in Taiwan that are developing small satellite programs for educational, scientific, and technological development purposes. These programs are funded by NSPO and also by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). At NCU, building on our foundation in the geosciences, we are developing two small satellites called IDEASSat and SCION-X. They will carry out science missions to study the Earth’s ionosphere, atmosphere, and aerosols. We have also been working with international partners in the United States, India, and Singapore to provide scientific payloads. Our colleagues at National Ocean University and National Formosa University are working on two small satellites – YuSat and NutSat – as technological demonstrations for maritime and aeronautical tracking. Our colleagues at National Cheng Kung University have participated in the QB50 constellation with their Phoenix CubeSat and are working on integrating machine learning into satellite remote sensing payloads.

On the public side, NSPO continues to work on the development of several large satellite missions such as FORMOSAT-7R/Triton to measure sea surface winds. Another mission is FORMOSAT-8, which will be used for optical remote sensing. NSPO is furthermore beginning to execute the third phase of the national space program. This involves the ambitious goal of developing 10 satellites over the next decade for remote sensing and communications purposes. It also has the objective of moving out of LEO and into deep space.

How and why did you come to be involved in Taiwan’s space sector?

Like many kids, I was fascinated by space while growing up, first in the United States, and then in Taiwan where my family moved when I was 10. Unlike a lot of kids, I never quite grew out of that fascination. I studied physics in my undergraduate years at the University of California at Irvine. Then I focused my graduate studies on aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was fortunate to have an exposure to both the scientific and engineering aspects of space. If you are going to build and operate a spacecraft, it is really helpful to have an understanding of the space weather and environment that await!

I moved back to Taiwan after getting my PhD, getting a faculty position at NCU after performing my required military service. Initially, I worked on studies of the Earth’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere, which affect the accuracy of satellite navigation and communications, as well as satellite drag in LEO. We delivered good results and a respectable publication record, which gave us the credibility we needed. This research also provided multiple ideas for satellite missions that could produce scientifically valuable results.

I also started to build courses to introduce students to space systems engineering, working initially on class projects building small CanSats as radio beacons. When our colleagues at National Chiao Tung University had spare payload space on the sounding rockets they were developing, they kindly offered us free rides! As the program matured, I was able to begin to leverage my international connections to build collaborations on small spacecraft for science missions with colleagues in the United States and India. This led to the development of our small satellite program at NCU, which has support from NSPO and MOST. With the growing interest in space, our Ministry of Education also approved the establishment of the first Space Science and Engineering Department and university space center in Taiwan – at our university!

When you work together with likeminded colleagues at home and abroad, don’t mind starting from a very basic level. Be prepared to put in time and effort to overcome challenges. Seek help when you need it. You will be very surprised at what you can accomplish!