Taipei, Aug. 25 (CNA) Taiwan's first domestically developed remote sensing satellite FormoSat-5 launched on Friday at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, after six years of hard work by the National Space Organization (NSPO).
In the more than two decades since the NSPO was established, this is the first time the organization has taken on the challenging task of designing, developing and engineering a space program.
During an exclusive interview with CNA, former director-general Chang Guey-shin revealed that what is now a proud accomplishment for the NSPO team was originally a last resort.
In 2006, the organization commissioned the development of two remote sensing satellites. The first one, which would become the FormoSat-5, was to be developed by the NSPO team with the guidance of a foreign space company, Chang noted.
However, when bidding day for the project rolled around, no one showed up, leaving the Taiwanese team to do everything on their own, he said.
That was the inauspicious beginning of FormoSat-5, which as of today has replaced FormoSat-2 in its mission to monitor and provide surveillance data for national security, disaster relief, technological, and academic purposes.
Chang initially expected that acquiring the component parts for the program would be difficult, given that those who worked on FormoSat-2 had previously "only seen but not touched" the sensors, chips, or computers.
It turned out that the challenge lay in the assembly of the satellite, a skillset that had up until then been largely kept a secret by international businesses in the industry to maintain their market value.
Chang knew that his team had to keep going; after all, it was a project with a NT$3 billion budget, he exclaimed.
Subsequently, the NSPO, under the guidance of the National Applied Research Laboratories (NARLabs), recruited a competent team from high tech industries, research institutes and for-profit companies to execute the program.
Over the next six years, cross-collaboration between different industrial sectors in Taiwan enabled the development of component parts 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. As Chang pointed out, they encountered difficulties every step of the way, but at the end of the day, each one was overcome.
Testing the satellite proved particularly tricky as the slightest vibration from the highway near where the space program warehouse was located affected optical testing results.
More importantly, it had to be shown that the satellite was sturdy enough to withstand the extreme conditions and temperatures of outer space, Chang continued.
On Oct. 16, 2015, NSPO 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 last year when the Falcon 9 rocket on which FormoSat-5 was scheduled to be launched exploded during preparations for a static-fire test at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 1. At the time this proved to be extremely difficult for the NSPO team, who had to wait for nearly a year before the satellite finally launched.
Finally, this year, the satellite was packaged and delivered to the U.S. over the weekend before July 17 and launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Friday.
The octagonal shape mini-satellite, which is 2 meters in height and 1.2 meters in diameter, represents how far space technology research has come in Taiwan since the 1990s, famed astronomer and director-general Sun Wei-hsin of the National Museum of Natural Science sad.
However, as Taiwan celebrates this breakthrough, Sun noted the country still has a long way to go to develop a vibrant space industry.
Other countries are ahead of Taiwan in the development of a basic foundation, experts and a market for space technology, he noted.
Nonetheless, developing the satellite domestically is proof of the proliferation of scientific knowledge, Sun noted.
Sun views FormoSat-5 as an opportunity to deepen Taiwan's space education and cultivate more expertise in the field.
(By Huang Li-yun, Chou Po-sheng, and Kuan-lin Liu)