FORMOSAT-5 in orbit Source: Wikipedia Commons

Planning to spend NT$4 billion between 2021 and 2024, Taiwan is now building its own experimental communication satellites as well, under the government’s Beyond 5G program. By 2025, Taiwan’s first Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite is expected to be launched. “In terms of throughput performance, it is on par with that of a Starlink satellite,” said Dr. Jong-Shinn Wu, the newly appointed Director General of Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO), Taiwan’s main space program coordinator. Just two months into the new position, the former rocket scientist has already dived deeply into the space revolution currently sweeping cross Taiwan’s high-tech industry. Out of breath and caught in seemingly endless meetings, the hectic director finally sat down for an interview with TechTaiwan, laying out the future roadmap of Taiwan’s space industry.

The industrialisation of Taiwan’s space technology 

In his tenure, Dr. Wu will oversee Phase III of Taiwan’s space program, lasting from 2019 to 2028.  While Phase I (1991-2006) and Phase II (2004-2018) established the basic organizations and technical capabilities of Taiwan’s space program, Phase III focuses on the full industrialisation of Taiwan’s space technology: Taiwan’s globally competent semiconductor industry will enter the orbit on an unprecedented scale, seeking a share in the growing global satellite market enabled, above all, by the commercialisation of rocket launch – thanks to SpaceX.

However, the lack of domestic launch capability is a major obstacle of Taiwan’s space industry. As a former CEO of TiSPACE, Taiwan’s first commercial rocket company,

Product verification is the first key step 

Dr. Wu has a firsthand experience of the predicament. TiSPACE originally planned to launch its hybrid rocket in 2019, but without a designated launch site in Taiwan, the progress was repeatedly delayed. The recent passing of Space Development Act, according to Dr. Wu, would finally settle the issue by establishing the legal infrastructure of Taiwan’s space development. Meanwhile, a short-termed site has been allocated and under negotiation, while the NSPO is planning for a permanent launch site for Taiwan’s emerging space industry.

Formosat-5
Source: NSPO

Lacking the access to domestic launch capability inevitably prevents Taiwanese space companies to verify their products, delaying the time to market. To address the issue, the NSPO currently offers various testing facilities for components heading into space, including facilities that test how satellite systems react to acoustic and low-frequency vibrations, electromagnetic interference/compatibility, and a vacuum environment with extreme temperatures. In coordination with the NSPO, an alliance for space radiation testing has also been formed with leading Taiwanese institutions and hospitals, such as Academia Sinica, National Tsinghua University, and Chang Sung Memorial Hospital.  “The current testing capacity is still low,” said Dr. Wu, “and Phase III of the space program aims to address that.”

Cultivating system integrators 

Apart from securing a permanent launch base and completing its verification facility, the NSPO also plays the role of a system integrator to accelerate the industrialisation of Taiwan’s space technologies. The FORMOSAT-5 program in 2017 particularly represented a turning point: for the first time, the NSPO undertook the designs and manufacturing of the remote sensing satellite’s systems. So far, according to Dr. Wu, the Taiwanese high-tech industry already has the capability to support the design of satellite systems and subsystems, and manufacture them. Some components, especially radiation-hardened active components, still have to be imported.

However, the NSPO director was confident that Taiwan could source 70-80% of its satellite bus components domestically before 2025. To facilitate the domestic industry, Dr. Wu pointed out the eventual need to cultivate system integrators in the private sector. Even though the NSPO currently fills in this role, the public sector still lacks the flexibility of private enterprises. Apart from these larger, relatively capital-intensive system integrators, Dr. Wu also indicated that the NSPO could serve as a hub from which new startups would spin out. “You don’t have to build a large team: all you need is to develop niche capabilities.”

Finally, Dr. Wu expressed the importance of concrete cooperations with the international community, including Europe, the US, and India. Stressing that he was not interested in mere cooperations on paper, the NSPO director observed that Taiwan’s emergent satellite industry had to acquire the latest know-hows, such as those related to laser communication and electric propulsion.

 

Interview conducted by Misha Lu