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FORMOSAT-5 slips free the surly bonds of Earth


I. Background

Since the start of the nation's space program in 1991, Taiwan has successfully executed three satellite programs: FORMOSAT-1, the nation's first artificial satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 27, 1999 and decommissioned in June 2004; FORMOSAT-2 was launched in May 2004 and decommissioned August 2016; and FORMOSAT-3 was launched April 2006 and continues to carry out meteorological and scientific missions in orbit.

The fourth satellite, FORMOSAT-5, successfully lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on August 25, 2017. The first high-resolution, remote-sensing optical satellite fully designed and developed in Taiwan, FORMOSAT-5 occupies a significant place in Taiwan's space development history.

II. Taiwan's first domestically developed satellite

FORMOSAT-5 is the culmination of six years' collaborative research and development involving Taiwan's CMOS Sensor Inc., National Central University, and about 50 teams from the industrial, academic and research sectors. After the teams completed the satellite system, which comprises the satellite body frame, an optical remote-sensing payload and a science payload, all components were successfully integrated and tested by late 2015 to prepare for the satellite's mission and launch.

Having developed and put into operation its own high-resolution optical remote-sensing satellite, Taiwan now looks forward to promoting missions and R&D focusing on domestic development of crucial optical remote-sensing satellites and related technological innovations.

III. Continuation of FORMOSAT-2's remote-sensing mission

Remote-sensing satellites are like giant digital cameras that can photograph the Earth from space and send back clear images of the planet's surface. After the devastation of Taiwan's Typhoon Morakot in 2009 and the massive 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, FORMOSAT-2 sent back detailed images of disaster-hit areas, providing first responders with valuable intelligence and considerably accelerating the pace of disaster relief and reconstruction.

Now that FORMOSAT-5 has taken over the Earth-imaging mission from the decommissioned FORMOSAT-2, the new satellite provides 2-meter panchromatic and 4-meter multispectral resolution images that have a wide range of applications, including government administration, disaster forecasting and mitigation, environmental observation, homeland security, international technological exchanges, academic research and international humanitarian assistance. FORMOSAT-5 also carries the Advanced Ionospheric Probe (AIP) science payload to monitor the ionosphere and study seismic precursors associated with earthquakes.

IV. Leverage industrial advantages to boost Taiwan's space technology

A. Develop indigenous space technology

In simplified terms, an artificial satellite is made up of the satellite body and the attached payloads—much like a truck and the cargo it transports. FORMOSAT-5's interdisciplinary teams harnessed Taiwan's industrial, academic and research capabilities to build key satellite body components, the remote-sensing payload, the science payload, and a ground image processing system, developing key technologies unavailable from abroad due to export-permit restrictions. The teams also forged a complete technology chain consisting of satellite design, analysis, manufacture, assembly, testing, mission controls and data processing, demonstrating Taiwan's technological and systems integration capabilities while pushing the standards for space technology in Taiwan.

B. Apply Taiwan's semiconductor industry advantages

To develop internationally competitive space technology that's unique to Taiwanese industries, the FORMOSAT-5 teams built the world's first linear CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) image sensor for Earth observation, propelling Taiwan into the ranks of countries able to manufacture their own high-resolution remote-sensing satellites.

C. Set milestones for Taiwan's space research

The AIP, Taiwan's first ionospheric probe developed by National Central University, currently boasts the highest sampling resolution in the world. It will be used to create space weather models, measure plasma irregularities, and study ionospheric anomalies as precursors to earthquakes.

V. Conclusion

With the spectacular lift-off of FORMOSAT-5, Taiwan prepares to write a new chapter in the history of indigenous space technology. The coming years represent a crucial time for the government's continued promotion of space technology R&D and the cultivation of the human resources needed to elevate Taiwan's space innovation capabilities. Space technology R&D results will also be used to create value-added applications that can promote industrial development and improve the public's well-being.

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